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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Can Schools Use Seclusion Rooms to Punish Kids?

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
November 20, 2017

Under state law, the answer is apparently yes in some places. A story reports that "Iowa is one of only five states that allow seclusion or restraints when there’s no physical threat, according to the ACLU. Twenty-nine states have banned the use of seclusion or restraints to discipline or punish a child."

Apparently, Iowa City Schools had made more than an infrequent practice of it. It had sent "students to seclusion rooms for having a bad attitude, using foul language or being out of instructional control, among other reasons. The [state education] department reviewed more than 450 incidents involving more than 60 students were sent to these rooms over a one-year period starting in December 2015."

The district now says it will discontinue the practice.

A handful of seclusion room stories have broken in other schools over the past year or two and districts have similarly been quick to change their practices once the stories came to light. Part of the pressure comes from the fact that many of the students subjected to this treatment have or many have disabilities, which brings federal law and limits into play.

Unfortunately, a corrective response is rarely quick or forthcoming at all for regular education students subjected to harsh school discipline. Writing of school exclusion (rather than seclusion) in Ending Zero Tolerance, I wrote:

"Over the past two decades, school discipline has grown increasingly harsh and impersonal. Many schools and states are willing to exclude—temporarily and permanently—students for almost any type of behavior. Even when students’ behavior poses no real danger to school and involves the type of immature mischief parents expect of normally developing kids, schools dig in their heels and insist that they must banish students.

Local communities and policy advocates have pushed back and managed some important successes in recent years, but the seriousness and scope of the problem demands a systematic long-term check."

I argue that courts are the check of last resort.

"Courts must re-engage on issues of discipline and enforce students’ rights. Courts cannot simply abandon students to school boards and the political process. Too often, both schools and politicians have shown themselves to be irrational and willing to sacrifice students in the expedient pursuit of other goals."

But even when courts engage, some schools cannot imagine another way of handling kids. Zero tolerance, seclusion rooms, corporal punishment and the like are examples of schools, at best, throwing their hands up in despair or, at worst, believing courts are the niavely meddling.

The Iowa City School plans moving forward do not inspire confidence. "It’s unclear what method or practice will be used in place of the rooms. [Superintendent] Murley said in his email that 'the district recognizes the role of restraint and seclusion in providing a free and appropriate public education for all students in a least restrictive environment within our schools and is seeking ways to improve our practices.'"

Part of the answer lies in understanding that student misbehavior is not just misbehavior. It is often a warning cry for help in some other area of the child's life or education. As I write here:

"Normal human development can explain a lot of misbehavior. Younger children, for instance, lack the capacity to always behave; no matter the rules, elementary school students occasionally talk out of turn, push each other and disrupt class. Older students sometimes push boundaries in other, more serious, ways. Making and learning from these mistakes is simply part of growing up.

Disabilities, academic struggles, poverty, homelessness and family crises can also affect behavior. For students in these situations, misbehavior is often a sign of unmet needs – not a character flaw."

Until school officials begin to understand misbehavior for what it is, our discipline problems will continue to plague us and stories of this sort shock us.

ADHD, or Childhood Narcissism?

From The Atlantic

By Enrico Gnaulati
September 17, 2013

Ten times as many children are diagnosed with ADHD today as were in the 1970s. What if their behavior—consistently distracted, hyperactive, impulsive—really indicates something else?

In a typical American classroom, there are nearly as many diagnosable cases of ADHD as there are of the common cold. In 2008, researchers from the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University found that almost 10 percent of children use cold remedies at any given time. The latest statistics out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the same proportion has ADHD.

The rising number of ADHD cases over the past four decades is staggering. In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s.

One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

With numbers like these, we have to wonder if aspects of the disorder parallel childhood itself. Many people recognize the symptoms associated with ADHD: problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented. Many also may note that these symptoms encapsulate behaviors and tendencies that most kids seem to find challenging.

So, what leads parents to dismiss a hunch that their child may be having difficulty acquiring effective social skills or may be slower to mature emotionally than most other kids and instead accept a diagnosis of ADHD?

"Today’s parents are well versed in ADHD terminology. They can easily be pressured into bypassing richer descriptions of their kid’s problems and are often primed to cut to the chase."

The answer may lie, at least in part, with the common procedures and clinical atmosphere in which ADHD is assessed. Conducting a sensitive and sophisticated review of a kid’s life situation can be time-consuming. Most parents consult with a pediatrician about their child’s problem behaviors, and yet the average length of a pediatric visit is quite short. With the clock ticking and a line of patients in the waiting room, most efficient pediatricians will be inclined to curtail and simplify the discussion about a child’s behavior. That’s one piece of the puzzle.

Additionally, today’s parents are well versed in ADHD terminology. They can easily be pressured into bypassing richer descriptions of their kid’s problems and are often primed to cut to the chase, narrowly listing behaviors along the lines of the following:
  • Yes, Amanda is very distractible.
  • To say that Billy is hyperactive is an understatement.
  • Frank is impulsive beyond belief.

All too often, forces conspire in the doctor’s office to ensure that any discussion about a child’s predicament is brief, compact, and symptom-focused instead of long, explorative, and developmentally focused, as it should be. The compactness of the discussion in the doctor’s office may even be reassuring to parents who are baffled and exasperated by their kid’s behavior.

It is easy to understand why parents may favor a sure and swift approach, with a discussion converging on checking off lists of symptoms, floating a diagnosis of ADHD, and reviewing options for medication.

Childhood Narcissism

In my experience, the lack of a clear understanding of normal childhood narcissism makes it difficult for parents and health-care professionals to tease apart which behaviors point to maturational delays as opposed to ADHD. 
What is normal childhood narcissism?

It can be boiled down to four tendencies:
  • Overconfident self-appraisals;
  • craving recognition from others;
  • expressions of personal entitlement; and,
  • underdeveloped empathy.

Let’s start with overconfident self-appraisals. The veteran developmental psychologist David Bjorklund says the following of young children:

"Basically, young children are the Pollyannas of the world when it comes to estimating their own abilities. As the parent of any preschool child can tell you, they have an overly optimistic perspective of their own physical and mental abilities and are only minimally influenced by experiences of “failure.”

Preschoolers seem to truly believe that they are able to drive racing cars, use power tools, and find their way to Grandma’s house all by themselves; it is only their stubborn and restricting parents who prevent them from displaying these impressive skills. These children have not fully learned the distinction between knowing about something and actually being able to do it."

It is normal for preschoolers to think big and engage in magical thinking about their abilities, relatively divorced from the nature of their actual abilities. Even first graders, according to research by psychologist Deborah Stipek of the University of California at Los Angeles, believe they are “one of the smartest in the class,” whether this self-assessment is valid or not. The play of young children is full of references to them being all-powerful, unbeatable, and all-knowing.

As most parents intuit, this overestimation of their abilities enables young children to take the necessary risks to explore and pursue activities without the shattering awareness of the feebleness of their actual abilities. For maturation to occur, kids need to get better at aligning their self-beliefs about personal accomplishments with their actual abilities. They also need to get better at realizing how a desired outcome is fundamentally connected to how much effort and commitment they put into a task.

The ways in which caregivers deal with kids’ successful and not-so-successful demonstrations of supposed talents have a bearing on how well kids form accurate beliefs about their true abilities. This brings us to the next ingredient of normal childhood narcissism—recognition craving.

The eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Heinz Kohut had much to say about kids’ showiness and its role in the acquisition of self-esteem. He was the one who brought the concept of narcissism into the spotlight during the 1980s. He proposed that adequate handling of a kid’s “grandiose-exhibitionistic needs” is one pathway toward establishing a kid’s basic sense of self-worth.

Consider, for example, a toddler who discovers for the first time that she can run across the living room unassisted. She brims with pride and is delighted by her masterful display. Her mood is expansive. She turns to caregivers for expressions and gestures that mirror back her sense of brilliance. Appreciation and joy shown by caregivers during these moments of exhibitionistic pride are absorbed like a sponge and become part of the child’s self-experience. Such praise becomes the emotional glue that she needs to hold together a basic sense of aliveness and self-worth.

"Parents cannot, and should not, be constant sources of unqualified praise. They only need to be good enough in their recognizing efforts."

Disappointment, of course, always lurks around the corner. Kids cannot always flawlessly swing across the monkey bars or execute a perfect cartwheel. Parents are not always able to pay undivided and sensitive attention to their kids’ efforts. And parents cannot, and should not, be constant sources of unqualified praise. They only need to be good enough in their recognizing efforts. It is also important that parents do not emotionally rescue their kid when his or her pride gets injured. Gushy statements aimed at putting Humpty Dumpty back together again should be avoided.

When a narcissistically needy seven-year-old loses in a footrace with Joey, a neighbor, it’s better to avoid saying, “You are a great runner. Your dad and I even think you’ll be a wide receiver one day. Come on now. Wipe off those tears.” What his emerging sense of self needs is something more like this:

“Honey, I’m so sorry you lost. ... I know how bad you must feel. ... It feels so great to win. ... But you know Joey is on the all-star soccer team and has been practicing his running for months. It’s gonna be tough to race against him anytime soon. You can always jog with your dad on Saturday mornings. That will surely make your legs stronger, and who knows what might happen?”

This sort of measured response ensures that kids will develop realistic self-appraisals. It also aids with the sort of self-talk that kids need to acquire to help them restore their self-esteem in the face of failures and setbacks, without crumbling in shame or lashing out at others because their pride has been injured.

Caregivers usually find kids’ exaggerated claims of what they can perform and witness-my-brilliance moments tolerable, if not cute and amusing. However, when encountering kids’ expressions of personal entitlement, most caregivers bristle. It is tempting for most caregivers to think that something is morally or medically wrong with their six-year-old when he or she stubbornly refuses to eat pasta for dinner as everyone around the table chows down with gusto, or when their five-year-old defiantly runs down the driveway rather than files into the minivan with the rest of the family to see a movie at the mall.

What are we to make of such extreme attempts on the part of kids to stubbornly insist upon things going their way or to act like they deserve special attention or treatment?

One way of thinking about this involves kids’ need for autonomy. They need to have a measure of control over what happens to them and around them, to have access to sources of pleasure that arouse and enliven them, and to have the means to avoid sources of pain.

Throughout their childhood, kids also need a measure of control over the pace of life to which they are required to adapt, without becoming excessively understimulated or overstimulated much of the time.

The proverbial “morning rush to get out the door” often sets the stage for kids’ most bothersome displays of personal control. A sudden “fashion crisis” necessitating a last-minute dash to the clothes hamper, or a refusal to turn off the television and leave for school, can signify how exasperated a kid is over the mandate that he or she move at a pace that may be convenient for grown-ups but is immensely stressful for him or her.

These types of defiant behaviors can also signify how effective a kid has been at pressing his or her agenda in the past, knowing parents will ultimately surrender to his or her wishes.

The final dimension of normal childhood narcissism I will discuss is empathy underdevelopment. Empathy is fundamentally an emotional experience. It involves “feeling along with others.” It entails a capacity to join with others and be sensitized to their emotions. Young preschoolers often hover nearby a crying friend and make awkward attempts to be comforting. This shows a rudimentary emotional connection that is the basis of empathy.

By the time kids reach age four or five, caring behaviors become much more refined. By this age, most kids are well on their way to naming and verbally elaborating upon the feelings others are manifesting. Of course, the greater the spectrum of emotions a kid is allowed to experience—and allows him-or-herself to experience—the more fully he or she is able to empathize with others across a range of feeling states in a variety of emotional situations.

Maintaining a healthy degree of empathy is a balancing act. Often the struggle for young children is to be sensitized to another person’s distress, anger, or excitement without becoming oversensitized or desensitized by it.

When children become overly upset in the face of another kid’s negative feelings, they experience what developmental psychologist Nancy Eisenberg calls a “personal distress reaction.” These types of reactions tend to make kids more self-focused because, once distressed, a kid is more concerned about his or her own self-comfort instead of how to be a friend to someone in need.

Empathic concern for others and feeling connected to them makes a kid “ruthful.” It dissuades a kid from engaging in “ruthless” acts of aggression. Where there is empathy, there is the experience of another’s suffering as being one’s own to some degree. In conflicts, the emotional pain caused by aggressive actions reverberates back to the child via empathic connection. It acts as a deterrent against wilder acts of aggression. It spurs the motivation to back off, make up, and make amends.

Empathy maturation, more often than not, is something that needs to be coaxed along by parents, caregivers, and educators. Kids should be prodded into elaborating on how they think a friend might be feeling: “Marissa has a frown on her face. How do you think calling her a witch made her feel?”

They need to be reminded of the importance of sometimes putting their needs aside for the time being. At Bob’s birthday party, for example, it is Bob’s time to be the focus of everybody’s enjoyment.

Childhood Narcissism and ADHD-Like Behavior

When I listen carefully to how parents describe their kid’s ADHD-like behavior, their descriptions often touch upon normal and not-so-normal levels of childhood narcissism of the sort I have just discussed:

  • If he can’t solve a problem immediately, Jonah has a meltdown.
  • Maria is so emotional. When she’s calm she can focus and get homework finished. When she’s doing her drama-queen thing, forget about it. The night is a write-off.
  • It’s bizarre. Frank insists that he is a good planner, puts his full effort into his homework, and keeps track of when his assignments are due, when all the evidence is to the contrary. Is he a pathological liar? Maybe he is suffering from amnesia or something?
  • It is like I am a short-order cook. Samantha will stubbornly refuse to eat pasta one night, then the next claim it is her favorite dish. On her off days, I throw together a meal so she will eat something. She is wafer-thin.
  • Despite constant reminders to pick up her dirty clothes, I went upstairs last night only to find them strewn all over the floor. On top of this, just before bedtime she announced to me she had a science test she had not studied for. Welcome to my world!
  • During his regular school day when there is set structure and routines, Ernesto does fine. But in his after-school program, the daycare worker jokingly told me he acts like a Tasmanian devil. He can’t handle unstructured play situations where the other kids are out there with their behavior and feelings. He seems to need a tame classroom environment where the other kids are calm and sit peacefully for him to behave right.

Evidence of childhood narcissism—overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement, empathy struggles—are nestled in these snippets I have collected over the years in my work with kids who have been brought to me because of suspected ADHD.

In my book Back to Normal: Why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders, I painstakingly go through most of the core symptoms of ADHD and show how closely they resemble aspects of childhood narcissism. For now, let me give you a flavor of this approach by analyzing a few of the above examples.

Take Jonah’s situation. He falls apart emotionally when unable to immediately master a task. One hypothesis is that this is a symptom of ADHD (not that a single indicator is positive proof of a disorder). Difficulties with retention of information needed to successfully execute a task—say, learning his multiplication tables—may predispose Jonah to tear up his math sheet and storm out of the room. However, another hypothesis is that he demonstrates a good dose of magical thinking. He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort.

Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up. He feels rotten about himself. His life sucks.

Wild swings in productivity like this are sometimes evidence of nothing other than shaky self-esteem in kids. These are kids whose feeling about themselves is overly dependent on outside praise and criticism. When they experience success, they believe they are outstanding individuals, and when they experience failure, they believe they are worthless individuals.

Similarly, does Samantha exhibit the disorganization commonly seen in ADHD children or a sense of entitlement whereby she resists accommodating others, believing that others should accommodate her by giving her special dispensations?

And does Ernesto have impulse-control problems or are his emotional boundaries underdeveloped? Does he absorb the feelings of those he comes into contact with in ways that unhinge and frazzle him?

When we truly listen to parents and refrain from shoehorning their descriptions into nifty behavioral phrases, overlaps begin to emerge between what is often described as ADHD phenomena and normal childhood narcissism.

Turning to the Research

I don’t expect readers to be entirely satisfied with my informal proposals linking ADHD phenomena with childhood narcissism. These days, scientific findings have an exalted status—especially with ADHD. This disorder is widely considered to be neurological in nature, perhaps best left to the brain specialists to investigate with modern imaging technology.

If I leave out scientific findings demonstrating linkages of the sort I am proposing, I run the risk of being perceived as just another naysayer who naively equates ADHD with childish behavior. I am not in the same camp as the pediatric neurologist Fred Baughman, who has gone on record with his rather brazen perspective: “ADHD is total, 100 percent fraud.” Therefore, off we go.

Let’s return to Frank, introduced earlier. Frank thinks he’s a good planner. According to his mother, that’s plain hogwash. Frank also sees himself as focused and organized when it comes to his homework. Is he, as his mother suspects, a pathological liar? Could he be suffering from amnesia? Dr. Betsy Hoza of Purdue University would say that Frank is neither a pathological liar nor an amnesiac but given to engaging in “positive illusory bias.”

For years, Dr. Hoza and her colleagues have examined the peculiar habit ADHD children often have of trumping up their beliefs about themselves relative to their true abilities. Across a variety of research projects, she has discovered that ADHD children tend to believe that they are more socially and academically competent than they indeed are. They also believe their capacity for self-control is higher than what parents and teachers confirm. Dr. Hoza holds fast to the theory that ADHD kids inflate their self-images for protective reasons, because their ADHD confronts them with daily experiences of failure.

"For [some children], dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort. If their caregivers repeatedly succumb to the pressure, these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently."

But what if, in many cases, it is a child’s inflated self-image that sets him or her up for failure, not ADHD per se? What if, rather than having ADHD, a child has unrealistic performance expectations that make him or her reluctant to persevere in the face of challenge or likely to abort a task at the first sign of failure?

What if, instead of treating a child for ADHD, caregivers worked with the child to address his or her overconfidence? Curiously, Dr. Hoza hints at the need for “humility training” with ADHD kids to address their overly positive self-images. This same approach would be applied to problematic childhood narcissism.

In 2006, Dr. Mikaru Lasher and colleagues from Wayne State University in Michigan did what several ADHD investigators have done before and others have done since. They demonstrated to the scientific community that ADHD children tend to score very poorly on measures of empathy (showing concern for others and being aware of how one might make others feel). They even took a page from the work of Dr. Hoza. It was substantiated that ADHD children’s self-perceptions of empathy were inflated compared with what their parents were seeing.

As cognitive psychologists, they chalked this up to the lack of cognitive flexibility shown by ADHD children. No doubt, if pushed, they would wax eloquently on ADHD children’s brain deficiencies. Nonetheless, it is tempting to wonder if what they were really measuring were subtle narcissistic tendencies in children labeled ADHD. Lacking empathy and exaggerating one’s skill set are, as we have seen, quintessential narcissistic traits.

ADHD kids are seldom perceived to be perfectionists. Don’t perfectionists persevere until they get it right? Don’t they relish looking for the devil in the details? Don’t they scan their work for errors and revise, revise, revise? Such behaviors are hardly associated with ADHD. Therefore, I had to reflect thoughtfully when I uncovered a bit of scientific knowledge on ADHD kids put out by University of New Orleans psychologist Michelle Martel and her team: “We also found evidence of an unexpected rare group of youngsters with ADHD and obsessive or perfectionistic traits.”

What are we to make of this? Actually, there is another way to think of perfectionistic traits. A kid who refuses help and persists in using an ineffective method over and over to no avail is a perfectionist. So too is a kid who avoids or fails to finish tasks that he or she cannot master easily and impeccably. Then again, there is the kid who is only motivated to perform in areas where he or she has a track record of excellence.

It must be these forms of perfectionism that Dr. Martel and her colleagues found to be true of a subset of ADHD kids. But wouldn't that suggest that these particular “ADHD” kids fall on the outer edges of the continuum of normal childhood narcissism?

Let’s return to the examples given in the previous section. Take Maria. She’s the drama queen. Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance. I can’t tell you the number of times I've had parents in my office describe to me a homework scenario where their otherwise bright, thought-to-be-ADHD kid complains bitterly, writhes around on the floor, and tears up homework in a rage—all to make the homework torture stop.

Of course, some of these kids truly have ADHD, and homework truly can represent a form of mental torture. But for others, dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort. If their caregivers repeatedly succumb to the pressure, these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.

These emotionally dramatic kids appear on the surface as if they had ADHD. Dr. Linda Thede of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs would probably concur. At an annual American Psychological Convention, her presentation on the thirty “ADHD” children she had rigorously studied revealed that they were more likely to have histrionic and narcissistic personality traits than non-ADHD children.

(“Histrionic” is a fancy clinical word referring to overly dramatic behavior intended to call attention to oneself.)

This brings us full circle. Is it possible that what appear to be ADHD symptoms are really normal narcissistic personality traits that, in high doses, can become problematic for kids?

I would say this is certainly true in many, but not all, cases.

Hard-to-manage narcissistic traits oftentimes overshadow and better explain what on the surface looks like can certainly lead to a diagnosis of ADHD, when it is the narcissistic traits with which educators and mental health professionals should concern themselves.

This post is adapted from Enrico Gnaulati's Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Children in Charter Schools Shouldn’t Go Hungry

From The Hill

By Eve Rifkin
December 26, 2017

A heartbreaking story of the seven-year-old girl in Texas has gone viral. During a class exercise in which she and her classmates were told to write a letter to Santa, Crystal Pacheco listed two wants: food and a ball; and one need: a blanket.

When asked by her teacher why she said she “wanted” rather than “needed” food, she replied “‘Well, I get to eat at school — sometimes I may not have [food] at home, but I get to eat at school. A blanket I have one, but it's not warm enough.’"

Crystal’s school in South Texas, like many other public schools throughout the country provide free breakfast and lunch each day to students who qualify. At Monte Cristo Elementary, that amounts to 93 percent of the students.

But not all public schools provide free meals for their hungry students. Alarmingly, only three states, Delaware, Ohio and Texas (and the District of Columbia) include language that specifically requires charter schools, which are public, to provide meals for students who live at or below the poverty line.

While the purpose of charter schools continues to be a matter of debate, no argument suggests that certain groups of students should be excluded. To choose a charter school is to choose a public school which, by law, is obligated to serve all students.

Given what we know about the deleterious effects of hunger on learning, it seems like a no-brainer that all schools, at least public ones, would be legally obligated to provide free or reduced-priced meals to their most vulnerable students. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

A 2015-2016 state-by-state report of school meals legislation, published by the Food Research and Action Center depicts a highly inconsistent approach to how and if schools provide meals to students who cannot afford to eat.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is among the largest programs designed to offset the negative impacts of hunger on school-age children by providing low cost or free meals to over 30 million children who qualify. The ambitious goals of the program, however, do not come without their share of headaches.

A 2016 report by the Niskanen Center described the national lunch program as a “case study in the inefficiency of in-kind federal programs and the micromanaging bureaucracies that come with them.”

In fact, some states, like California and Arizona, exempt charter schools from their state laws regarding school meals for this very reason, claiming that the bureaucratic demands of the program would hinder charter schools, especially small ones, from acting as the hotbeds of innovation they were intended to be.

But small public charter schools acting as labs of innovation have the responsibility to innovate in the name of all students, regardless of socioeconomic status. That, again, is what makes them public.

A report by Feed America shows a strong link between food insecurity and children’s learning. Poor nutrition and hunger have been shown to have a negative impact not only on a child’s physical growth and development, but on cognitive development and social-emotional health as well.

Food insecurity has also been associated with increased stress levels in children, which may ultimately lead to behavioral issues. According to a policy brief by No Kid Hungry, children who lack adequate food tend to have higher incidence of suspensions, higher dropout rates.

At my small charter school in Tucson, Arizona, we serve breakfast and lunch to all students who qualify. This is no easy task given our size, but the desire to open our own school came with a deep commitment and obligation to be inclusive of all students. In Arizona, close to 60 percent of school-age children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Without our participation in the national lunch program, we would not be able to truly serve the public.

Several of our students, like so many young people living with food insecurity, rely almost exclusively on the meals they receive from their public schools. One student, a 16-year-old, told me “I was always hungry when I was a kid. My foster mom was weird about food — by law, she was supposed to cook for me, but sometimes I would get home late after basketball practice and there wasn't anything to eat. The food I got at school was the only food I could count on. I couldn't afford anything else. “

Current policy regarding which schools are required to provide meals for poor students is left entirely up to the states. This needs to change.

Despite the extremely limited role that the U.S. Department of Education plays when it comes to setting educational policy, there are plenty of ways in which this agency already informs the day-to-day realities of public schools.

Most public educators like myself might be happier without some of this intervention, especially when it comes to testing. Nevertheless, the Department of Education should extend its reach just a little bit further and require that all public schools, district as well as charter, are held accountable for not only meeting and reporting on academic standards, but for ensuring that every student has what they need in order to have a fair shot in the first place. This should include meals for students who cannot afford to eat.

Eve Rifkin is co-founder and Director of College Access at City High School in Tucson, Arizona, and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

Friday, December 29, 2017

What Some Families of Children with Developmental Disabilities Are Grateful For

by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine

By Lisa Shulman, M.D.
December 22, 2017

In my family, as in many others, during the holiday season we volunteer at soup kitchens and purchase gifts to donate to children who might otherwise have none for Christmas. It’s our way of expressing our gratitude.

This got me thinking about gratitude in the face of developmental disability.

Daily life is often difficult for the families I work with as a developmental pediatrician at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center. There are more tears of sadness than of joy in my office. The frustrations, anxieties and questions—about “why,” “what if” and “if only”—are spoken of every day by parents.

But there is gratitude as well.

I remember that when we moved to our current office space, I expressed concern about the setup. There would be a single waiting room; adults with severe disabilities—some of whom were nonverbal, some of whom were in wheelchairs—would be side by side with parents bringing in their infants or toddlers who had been referred to us. I worried about how frightening it might be for the parents of young children, who would wonder: is this what is in store for my child? 
But I think some good has come from the arrangement.

Parents often come into my office with a sense of gratitude about what their children can do, instead of focusing only on what they cannot.

A family may come to see me with a toddler they fear has autism. The child may not speak, or may have behaviors or interests that are of concern to the parent or doctor or preschool. Often that concern is warranted, but other times, the child may be language delayed or have a shy temperament. The former often respond to intervention and the latter are within the wide range of typical personalities. Such a family tends to express gratitude for having dodged a life-changing diagnosis.

Then there are the children with developmental disabilities who do far better than expected. They respond well to interventions, continue to improve each year and over time become more capable academically and socially, with fewer behavioral problems, until they head off to high school, then to college—things the family never believed possible. Their parents speak of their gratitude for getting the children identified early, receiving appropriate intervention and even being lucky.

I follow many children with autism—some with syndromes associated with significant intellectual disability, who are nonverbal and often have behavioral challenges. Their parents have nearly lost all hope.

Recently, an 8-year-old with severe autism arrived with his mother, who was seeking advice on what more could be done for her child. He was expressing aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. The mother’s daily life was difficult. Any little thing could set off a severe tantrum in her son, resulting in his showing aggression toward others or hitting himself in the head.

He was getting bigger and harder to manage, and she feared taking him out alone. “Life shouldn’t be this hard,” she lamented.

After making sure that he had no acute medical problems or sources of discomfort (e.g., problems with his teeth, or constipation) and that he was in an appropriate school setting, I started him on a medication approved for the treatment of irritability in autism. He responded well. On a follow-up visit, his mom said he seemed much happier, with far fewer tantrums.

Next, he saw a speech therapist, who used an augmentative communication device to work with him. It became clear he was a good candidate for working with such a device: he understood cause and effect, and he was able to look at an array of pictures, understand what they represented and then make choices, thereby communicating his wants and preferences.

Although he still was nonverbal, his mother saw that he was more capable of communication than she had thought. She saw a path toward his achieving increased communication ability.

And at each visit, I saw his mother transformed a little. She smiled more; she seemed less stressed. Slowly, she began speaking more hopefully about her son’s future and her own. She expressed gratitude for the therapist, the medication and the guidance that were giving her son a voice—and giving her hope.

For all the tears in my office, I also see families who express gratitude that life with a child with a disability whom they love dearly has taught everyone in the family to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life.

Nearly everyone has things they wish were different—things that simply aren’t fair and don’t make sense. But in this holiday season, we seek to cultivate gratefulness for what we have. For families who have children with significant disabilities, this gratitude often is directed to the people who help their children learn, thrive, be safe and be well cared for, and who ultimately optimize their potential.

They also express thanks for the people and communities who support the families, helping them access resources, advocate to have unmet needs addressed or simply do regular things such as go to church, buy a candy bar at a store or go to the movies.

And then—often very gradually—the children and parents of children with disabilities reach the point where they can help others along the difficult paths they have already traversed, and become a source of gratitude for others.

Being involved with the families I see and being able to positively impact their life journeys in any small way is a privilege and inspiration every day. For this, I too am grateful.

Lisa Shulman, M.D. is a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She is also director of Infant and Toddler Services and the RELATE program at Montefiore's Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Smartphones Aren't a Smart Choice in Middle School

From CNN

By Delaney Ruston
December 22, 2017

Not too long ago, one of my daughter's middle-school teachers told me that my daughter was spending a lot of time on her phone during class. As a mother, this was concerning.

But I was not surprised.

Delaney Ruston

I am a physician and filmmaker who dedicated my time to make the documentary "Screenagers: Growing up on in the Digital Age" precisely because I know how strongly tech tempts youth and how confused we are as a society about what to do about that.

This month, the Screenagers team and I completed a survey of people who had seen or were interested in the topic of our film to gather data on middle-school phone rules. More than 1,200 middle school parents in the United States responded.

While parents who are on our email list and who responded to the survey may be more concerned about their kid's cell phone use than the general parent population, two particularly striking findings emerged:
  • 55% of the parents who responded to our survey said their children's middle schools now allow cell phone use, with public schools being more likely than private schools to allow it.
  • More than 80% of parents do not want their kids to use cell phones during school.

Recently, France announced it is banning cell phones in school for all students age 15 and under, starting next fall. From our survey, it seems that many U.S. parents may be in favor of similar restrictions in the classroom. And it's not only parents who support "away for the day" policies, which require students to leave their phones out of reach -- so does science.


We know that the frontal lobe -- the part of the brain responsible for impulse control -- is not fully developed in middle school-aged children. When we expect kids to learn how to handle phone use in places like classrooms, we are setting many of them up for failure.

According to the students, teachers and administrators whom we spoke to for the film, many students are getting in trouble in schools across the country for being on their phones in class when they're not supposed to.

Despite searching, I have never seen a study on the impact of access to phones on middle schoolers' academic achievement, but a 2012 study, published by the Communication Education journal, on college students is discouraging. Students who interact with their cell phones in class perform worse on tests -- often a full letter grade or more.

In fact, just having phones within reach, can cause academic performance to decline, whether they're used or not.

In a 2017 study, participants completely turned off and silenced their phones. While they performed memory tasks, some were allowed to keep their phone, and some were told to put it in the other room. Those who had the phone with them did significantly worse. The mere presence of smartphones reduces available cognitive capacity. In other words, the attention and energy it takes to not check a phone seems to cause "brain drain."

Visit any middle school where cell phones are allowed at lunch or break and you will see heads down everywhere you look. Kids I've met through Screenagers tell me how they retreat into their phones to avoid feeling anxious while socializing.

While cyberbullying gets a lot of attention, too many students face micro emotional hits when they are left out of group chats or see photos to which they compare themselves and feel inferior. When this happens during the school day, it can make it very difficult to focus on school work.

A 2016 study published by the Pediatrics journal found that the increasing rates of depression in adolescents, especially in girls, correlated with the use of mobile phones and texting apps. Meanwhile, youth who spent more time on social media -- often accessed through smartphones -- have a greater likelihood of being unhappy.

Importantly, it's been found that face-to-face time with friends strongly correlates with less depressive feelings. Creating environments where kids disconnect from their devices and interact in person would be a smart public health move.

Schools that changed their policy from allowing cell phones to prohibiting them saw student test scores improve by 6.41%, according to a 2015 study from the United Kingdom.

In the US, administrators of schools that have adopted "away for the day" policies have reported improvements in students' emotional well-being too. Matthew Burnham, a middle school principal in El Cerrito, California, told us, "When we took the phones away, we had very little pushback from the kids, and all of those distractions and problems went away."

That's a marked improvement.

So why do some middle schools allow students to have phones all day? One reason could be that they don't want the burden of enforcing the policy. But the reality is that when solid systems are in place middle schools should not be overburdened.

Schools could also believe that parents want to be able to contact their children all day. But our data shows this is not the case. When kids and parents don't rely on constant communication, they instead must plan for the day ahead of time, and this can help kids to develop valuable executive-functioning skills.

It is time we follow France's lead and do what is best for our middle school students today. That means require all middle school students to put their phones "away for the day."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Why Are Parents Afraid of Later School Start Times?

From The Atlantic

By Isabel Fattal
November 12, 2017

A new paper argues that using behavioral economics to ease families’ fear of change could help convince them to switch up their children’s routines.

All of my high-school memories, even the best ones, are tinged with exhaustion: the full-body ache of dragging myself into bed at midnight at the end of a long day of school and homework, the terror of staring down traffic lights in the hope they’d change as I raced to arrive by our 7:10 AM start time.

My friends and I talked incessantly about how tired we were, and our parents talked about it, too, but no one ever seemed to float the idea that we should be making a change. It was just the way things were.

Research has shown that early school start times (7:30 a.m., for example) don’t square with adolescents’ sleep needs, and that later ones have positive effects on mental and physical health, as well as academic performance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have even urged policymakers to move toward later start times—scientists tend to recommend pushing the bell to 8:30 a.m.—for middle and high-school students. Still, many school districts have been mired in years-long debates over the issue.

Early start times first came about in the latter half of the 20th century, when suburban schools decided to stagger their schedules so that the same fleet of buses could serve all students, dropping off high-school students earliest. Urban schools then adopted those start-time hours, and extracurricular activities oriented themselves around this scheme, according to Terra Ziporyn, the executive director of the nonprofit Start School Later.

Some policymakers have begun to rethink that custom: School districts in at least 21 states have later start times this year than they did last year with the intention of giving students more time to sleep, and schools in at least 45 states have delayed their start times in recent years.

Lawmakers in California recently introduced a first-of-its-kind bill that would ban start times earlier than 8:30 AM; after failing to receive enough votes, it was shelved for next year.

Yet, according to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, over 85 percent of public high schools still start before 8:30 a.m. While few question the scientific evidence supporting later start times, many parents and administrators argue that starting school later isn’t the best solution to kids’ sleep-deprivation problems, citing practical concerns.

They wonder what later school end times would mean for sports and after-school activities, for example, and how much additional money districts would have to spend on transportation. Because many districts stagger their transportation in order to use the same buses for all of their students, pushing back middle and high-school start times could mean paying for more buses.

But if later start times are indeed the remedy that many advocates tout it to be, why haven’t the arguments in its defense prompted widespread change? The sticking point may be much simpler, and much harder to overcome, than the practical concerns: It’s tough to fight against the allure of the status quo.

In a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Sleep Health, a group of researchers and later start-time advocates uses tricks from the field of behavioral economics to tackle a complicated question: Why is it so hard for people to embrace change, and how can you convince someone that change is worth it?

Behavioral economics pulls from disciplines such as social psychology, cognitive science, and economics to analyze why individuals make the choices they do—especially when these decisions run counter to fact or to an understanding of the benefits of the opposite choice. Susan Malone, a senior research scientist at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing at NYU, teamed up with the behavioral economist Alison Buttenheim and Ziporyn to apply this thinking to the school start-time debate.

The authors argue that it isn’t enough to simply offer scientific evidence of the advantages of later start times. Relying on the science, the paper states, “assumes that district officials and stakeholders engage in a rational decision-making process”; factors like “common biases” and “mental shortcuts” often get in the way.

Behavioral economists have looked at other health issues, such as smoking and obesity, through the lens of these kinds of decision-making factors. A study on weight loss, for example, showed that behavioral-economics tricks like incentive systems with monetary rewards helped participants achieve their weight-loss goals.

A graphic depicting the percentage of public schools with early school
start times (before 8:30 a.m.), by state, for the school year 2011-2012.
(US Department of Education)

The paper’s first suggestion for advocates seeking to delay start times tries to poke at the staying power of the status quo. Initiatives are often most successful when they are the default option, or the option that requires no work on the part of the person making the choice.

Take organ donations: In countries where donating is the default option and opting out requires active effort, donation-consent rates are higher than in countries where it isn’t the default option.

For parents, the threat of change can be stressful in its own particular way. Ziporyn of Start School Later noted that she has seen parents show just as much apprehension about earlier school start times as they do about later ones, which she suggested means it’s mostly change that they’re afraid of.

With this in mind, the authors recommend shifting the burden of defense from late start times to early start times. States and regions, for example, could require districts to submit evidence-based justifications of early start times on an annual basis, while districts with later start times wouldn’t have this requirement.

Casting later start times as the norm rather than an aberration would also help the advocates’ cause, according to the researchers, given that social pressure is a significant factor in human decision-making. When people see peers who are similar to them doing something, they are likely to imitate that action.

One odd example: According to a study, hotel guests who are told that past guests staying in their specific room reused their towels are more likely to choose to reuse than those who are simply told that guests in the same hotel have done it.

The authors suggest that people advocating for later start times in a given district find a school that did push the first bell back and put it in contact with a similar school that’s conflicted on the issue.

Since the paper is a set of suggestions, it does not provide findings, and without data it’s unclear whether these tools can indeed be applied to the school start-time debate. Those who oppose late start times may disagree with the study’s underlying premise and dismiss behavioral-economics tricks as ineffective in the face of what they see as clear logistical concerns.

And, a substantial number of anecdotes do support their concerns about delaying class; some students have said they have less time to complete their homework, for example, and some school districts have noted that students feel more rushed getting to sports games or other activities after a later last bell, while others have reported traffic and overcrowding on buses, which sometimes makes students late for school.

“People don’t want to be told that they’re hurting their children.”

Asked about the practical arguments against later start times, Ziporyn pointed to the many districts that have successfully found solutions to the logistical challenges. “When schools change their hours, all of these things adapt accordingly,” she said. She noted that many schools that have moved their bell times still have students winning sports competitions and continue to see growing rates of extracurricular participation.

Ziporyn also pointed to a recent RAND Corporation report predicting that later start times are economically beneficial in the long run; the report estimates that the decrease in fatal car accidents and increase in academic achievement as a result of later start times would lead to a stronger workforce and nationwide economic gains over the course of the next decade, and that immediate benefits could be seen in as soon as two years.

Even those who complain about later start times tend to agree that solving the logistical challenges is possible—it’s just that the solutions take time, unified leadership, and often money, resources which can be difficult for some schools to come by.


Malone, the research scientist at NYU and one of the study’s authors, said that the authors knew they were embarking on something “new and different” when they decided to apply behavioral-economics principles to an issue of public policy, which often gets mired in bureaucracy and logistics, rather than a case of individual choice-making.

It’s also possible that for some decision-makers, the choice doesn’t appear as one between what is beneficial and what is harmful; some might see it as a balancing of, say, health benefits with logistical benefits.

All in all, the authors’ hope is to “create a climate in which people want to change”—a climate that may be difficult to create just by talking to parents about the scientific evidence, Ziporyn said. “People don’t want to be told that they’re hurting their children,” she said. “It sounds like we’re telling people they’re bad parents. And that’s not the point. The point is, this is something you want to do.”