Wednesday, July 19, 2017

response on raising the bar

Once again the concept of raising the bar is in the news. We are confronted with this question- What should a diploma mean?

  • Should a diploma be a minimum bar over which students should aspire to stumble over, as it has been for some states as some points of time?
  • Should it be an elevated standard that denotes a level of achievement that will indicate students will be successful in college or a career, as the Common Core Standards advocates?
  • Should it be something everyone should aspire to?
  • Should it indicate some superior level of performance that everyone can achieve?
  • Should an employer be able to look at the fact that a student has a diploma and believe that this student has the raw ability to be trainable in his environment?
  • Is it something that must be earned or is it an entitled right?
  • Is it about time served or amount learned?

Because we are not sure what a diploma should mean, our education system flounders, wandering this way and that, not doing a good job of meeting any of the objectives.

Kathleen Mikulka  addresses this question in her response to Maine's increased standards for graduation. Maine will require students to earn an 80 or better on 8 proficiency exams in order to earn a diploma. Problems abound around this idea, particularly the fact that the exams are locally developed and thus not comparable to each other or married to any standard. Mikulka's primary objection appears to be that her students with special needs might not be able to pass the exams and thus create young people "with no future."

If the exams are easy enough to be passed by everyone, a strategy that districts could take, they are meaningless. Employers or colleges want to see a diploma and know what that means. Students who lack the ability to apply themselves in a way to be successful on the exams (those with emotional disabilities are the largest group of non-diploma winners) or lack the ability to be successful on the exams might have a future confronted with limitations. Poor social-emotional skills will prevent them from being successful in the real world. Is it better to have students not fail in school but fail in life, or fail in school where maybe they can later learn the skills to be successful in life.

I know it is hard to have a child who puts forth every effort only to fail or barely pass, but that is life. No matter how hard you try, there are things you will not achieve- as a middle aged 5'2" female with poor coordination will never be an NBA player, more than half the people who want to be president, in spite of trying very hard, never make it. I would rather have the hard working high school non-finisher on my team than the lackadaisical, diploma-granted, entitled one. Many employers will tell you that it is not cognitive skills that enable individuals to be successful in jobs but soft skills- things like punctuality, initiative, manners, diligence, and persistence. Some employers see a college degree not in terms of a person having particular content skills, but in terms of him being trainable. As employment tests have been increasingly thrown out of use by courts, employers have raised the education bar because it is a mark of work ethic, not acquired skill level. Yes, employers want employees who can write a decent report, read a manual, do basic arithmetic without a calculator, and speak intelligibly, but they also want them to show up on time, put away their devices, work for their full shift and be pleasant throughout. If we are only teaching the former "content" skills, our children find themselves with a limited future regardless of their diploma status.

We need to decide what it means to have earned a diploma. Then we need to focus our efforts toward that goal. Yes, some will not earn a diploma. Some people will never be in the NBA, paint award winning pictures, perform at Carnegie Hall or be employed at a fortune 500 company. That is ok. We need to view all work as valuable- regardless of its income potential. People have a future until they are dead. Yes, some will have to work their backsides off while others will seem to breeze through with no troubles.  When we see some jobs as more worthy, when we tell kids who are not going to be the top 1% or 20% or 50% they are not as worthy we have a problem.  Most are not going to be in that top 1% or 20% or 49.9999%, we need to get comfortable with whosoever we are.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Brain based teaching in a digital age

Marilee Sprenger wrote Br@in-Based Teaching:) in the Digital Age in 2010 and in the intervening years technology has certainly continued to advance with a rapid pace. Neuroscience has made huge discoveries as well. That said, there is much to glean from this book. One of the Appendices probably should be in the introduction- How the brain works is really what underlies many of her assertions.

Her research indicates a huge need for non-technology interactions. Like so many things moderation is important and variety is the spice of life. Kids who are glued to their devices need to learn to interact without them just as they need to be used as part of the learning spectrum. She talks about how the brain changes in response to stimulus. There is lots of research on this if you want some interesting reading (here, here, and here for example). Children who are exposed to huge amounts of fast-paced, visual input have more synapses around their visual cortex than those who do not. These children need to be trained in how to use focus when interpreting visual information as well as instruction in responding to auditory information. They need to work in groups and learn social skills that are often poorly developed because they spend so much time glued to their devices, even in social settings.

Sprenger cautions against, however, blaming technology for loss of creativity. She suggests looking at the loss of unstructured time for our kids as a large cause of limited imagination and creativity. This is not just in school where recess has been targeted for elimination to make way for ELA and math instruction, but with parents who plan exclusively organized events for their kids- team sports, classes, and parent supervised games have free play in the neighborhood playground. While the world is not necessarily a more dangerous place, we refrain from allowing our kids from traveling around their environment independently. A family recently had their children removed because they were allowed to walk home from the park independently. We need to promote unstructured time away from technology to promote well being for our children.

One strategy that Sprenger strongly supports is mind mapping. Using these graphic organizers helps kids form linkages and organize their important information. She also supports using music to link information in the brain. These two tools- music and mind maps- help to strengthen memories. We need to teach children to use these strategies if they are to effectively use them to enhance learning.

Many of us may have learned that people can maintain 7 pieces of information in our short term memory. Sprenger points out an important detail- that number grows as children develop. They begin with one bit of memory at age three and increase their capacity one bit every other year through the age of 15 (see the chart below).

Number of memory bits

Sprenger's information forms a good foundation to understanding neurological function and the brain. While the pace of discovery is fast, understand the tenants she lays forth, will help teachers design better instruction for children.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Brain-based teaching- special classes

Marilee Sprenger's book, Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age, discusses the impact of the digital exposure on the brain. The second chapter brings up a special point- specials matter. Much research demonstrated that with the onset of 3-8 testing through NCLB, time spent on untested areas went down. Special education teachers and related services such as physical therapy pull from non-critical time in school (if this isn't a joke I don't know what is)- social studies, science, art, music, recess and PE all suffered as a result of the increased accountability in reading and math. There is a cost associated with the reductions in those specials, and Marilee clearly points it out.

Exercise- think PE and recess:
  • Improves attention and motivation by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • Decreases impulsivity by activation of frontal lobe structures that inhibit random, divergent actions and thoughts through the release of more dopamine and serotonin.
  • Creates more positive moods, lowers anxiety, and raises self-esteem through the release of more serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Helps overcome learned helplessness by improving resilience, improving self-confidence, and raising the ability to withstand stress and frustration.
  • Causes stem cells in the brain to divide, which creates the possibility for making new brain cells.
  • Adds new brain cells to the hippocampus (the memory control area) and may also add to the frontal cortex, where executive functioning takes place.
  • Adds to the "chemical soup" that promotes the growth and survival of new neurons. (p. 21-2)
When we think about sleepy teenagers who cannot keep their heads up, we should think about motion to get their blood flowing and to stimulate their brains. When kids have tests, we can start the experience with yoga or an exercise to help prep them for the experience. When we work with new learnings, a bout of movement will help them to focus on information. Studies have demonstrated that a movement period a day increases tests scores even if time on task is decreased. Research has also shown that for students with ADHD spending 45 minutes a day in aerobic exercise significantly improves their ability to regulate their behavior. In Finland students have 15 minutes of break time for every 45 minutes of instruction. Their students excel on international tests. Movement makes sense, especially for boys whose brains are more likely to be wired to learn better with movement.

Art- this really is fine arts- both traditional art and music classes as well as dance and drama.
  • Music training has a positive relation to mathematics reasoning, particularly in geometry.
  • Music training is closely correlated with improvements in reading fluency, reading attainment, and sequence learning.
  • Music training and acting are associated with improvements in working memory.
  • Learning to dance by watching others may be as effective as learning through physical movement; this observation may also transfer to other cognitive abilities. (p. 23)
Other research also supports this idea. Nick Rabkin points out in his review of the research:
in the visual arts, there are findings about how drawing supports writing skills and how visualization training supports interpretation of text. In music, researchers found strong connections to spatial reasoning and math, and between instrument instruction and SAT scores. Dance instruction was connected to fluency in creative thinking and to reading skills. Drama in the form of dramatic enactment was connected to story comprehension, character understanding, and writing proficiency, and is shown to be a better way for students to process a story than teacher-led discussion. Multi-arts programs, as you might expect, had multiple connections: to reading, verbal, and math skills, and to creative thinking. ... Dance is connected to self-confidence and persistence; music to self-efficacy and self-concept; drama to concentration, comprehension, conflict resolution, and self-concept; multi-arts to achievement motivation, cognitive engagement, self-confidence, risk-taking, perseverance, and leadership. Several studies show that children become more engaged in their studies when the arts are integrated into their lessons. Others show that at-risk students often find pathways through the arts to broader academic successes.
It is crazy that we do not see these subjects as critical to learning. They are not just enrichment, they are the basis of success.

Stimulating the brain in many ways is essential to its growth. If you do not knead dough by stretching all of it in many directions you do not get a good loaf of bread. Similarly, if you do not push and pull the brain in different ways you do not get as good a result. Lynne Kenney uses the idea that the arts, especially music and movement are essential to learning in her book, 70 Play Activities. We need to defend our children's specials as essential to their performance in school. We need to integrate arts and movement into classroom instruction. We need to see the importance in getting kids off their chairs, away from their screens and into active learning.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Causes and Cures

Margaret Searle's book, Causes & Cures in the Classroom: Getting to the Root of Academic and Behavior Problems, spurred my interest because of the focus on executive function (EF) skills and the cool graphic I saw in the ASCD catalog.

Searle divides EF skills into five groups:
  1. Planning and problem solving,
  2. memory skills,
  3. organization,
  4. focusing attention,
  5. impulse control and self-monitoring.
After an introductory chapter about EF skills, she devotes one chapter to each group of skills.  Searle's framework includes a series of graphic organizers that I am sure to enlarge, copy and laminate for future reference. They list several underlying causes of concerns and possible subskills. For example, if a student has trouble getting started, it is often do to a challenge in one of three areas: inability to visualize a goal, inability to visualize an action plan, or lacking a sense of urgency. If the challenge is hypothesized to be related to inability to visualize a goal, then possible root causes include: inability to visualize the final product, not thinking the goal is important or reasonable, or not knowing how to set goals and subgoals (p. 22). The graphic makes this much easier to read. The unfortunate part is that the graphic does not include possible interventions about each root cause. A great interactive would allow someone to click on a cause and bring up a variety of strategies designed to address the concern.

This book is designed to be read by general education classroom teachers. The thought being that while many kids with disabilities have EF weaknesses, these challenges occur in the general population, in part because the human brain area that governs EF skills, the prefrontal lobe, does not mature until a person is in his mid-twenties. Like all other skills, we develop fluency slowly over time, each with a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. People can learn to improve these skills regardless of disability and upbringing. A caution that the author presents is that,
"issues like the need for medication, poor support from home, learning disabilities, and dysfunctional families definitely affect students and can make teaching harder, but teachers usually have little control over them. If we cannot control the issue, it is fruitless to waste time having a conversation about it during the analysis talk,..." (p. 23)
This is critical. We can choose to throw up our hands and say we have no control so there is nothing we can do or we can say we can still teach and reach these youngsters, even if it is harder through no fault of our own.

Her approach for solving problems involves two parts: the five Whys, a process developed by Toyota to solve problems, and a basic problem solving framework. Under the five whys, she asserts that multiple reiterations of questions (often at least five) are required to solve a problem. Questions such as:
  • Why do you think the student does that?
  • What would cause the student to think that way?
  • What skills do you think the student lacks that other students the dame age understand and use?
  • What is keeping the student from learning these skills?
  • What should we concentrate on first? (p. 21-23)
Much like cognitive coaching that I am working on, this is all about using questions to get to the bottom of the problem, then working upward from there.

Her basic steps of problem solving include:
  • Know the traits of the student or group to be supported
  • Analyze the root causes
  • Set clear and measurable goals
  • Decide how to monitor and chart student progress
  • Compose the intervention options and select a plan.
In the first step she has the team identify strengths as well as behavior and academic challenges. Then they analyze the challenge using the five whys approach. Hypotheses are developed about the problem and solutions are sought out.

Searle emphasizes the critical role of self-monitoring. She wants students to chart their success. If an approach is not beginning to encounter success, perhaps the understanding of the root cause is wrong. Research has definitely shown that student graphing of progress is motivating to success.

Once the plan has been worked out, she presents the plan on a chart. This showcases how the entire team is part of the solution. The best plans involve everyone. Spelling out the various roles gives each person on the team concrete pieces to play in addressing a concern.

Skills needed
Teaching strategies
Student responsibilities
Suggestions for parents

Another important component to her program is the linkage of EF challenges to academic challenges. In the memory chapter she shows how persistent math challenges frequently co-occur. Organizational challenges tend to be comorbid with writing problems. Attentional challenges tend to be comorbid with reading comprehension issues. Acknowledging that EF issues underlie many academic challenges means that when one exists, searching to see if the other does could lead to a pathway to intervention. In the respective chapters she includes a graphic chart- similar to the ones for the EF skills themselves.

This book offers some evidence based strategies for intervening in EF challenges, but they are limited by the size of the book. Searle acknowledges that interventions can be individual, small-group or large group, depending on what skills peers demonstrate as well. Seeing a group of students utilizing a strategy can destigmatize interventions.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

FLIPP the Switch

I begin this post with the same identifying information as the last: In my quest to further develop my understanding of Executive Function (EF) disorders, I picked up FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills by Sheri Wilkins and Carol Burmeister. My pervious posting was about an EF workbook for teens (see here). Its target audience is higher functioning teen agers who can use it with little support. This book targets people with more significant challenges. Strategies include strong visual components that would be especially useful for people with ASD. In fact, having looked through the resources section of the book, the vast majority target the autism population specifically.

This book is a fabulous resource. After a brief introduction about what EF skills are, the authors go into five chapters describing strategies to support each area of EF skills: flexibility, leveled emotionality, impulse control, planning and problem solving. My previous post discussed one strategy in the flexibility area. In the emotionality section it talks about choice cards and chunking skills mirrored in the last section of problem solving where work systems and task analysis are discussed. Under impulse control PBIS is discussed along with reminder cards which reinforce the planner skills addressed under the planning section. Interdependency of EF skills is highlighted. The challenge may not be identifying what specific area is impacted but where is the most prudent place to intervene. Also throughout the book are many printable templates for their suggested strategies. Although many are easy to replicate on your own, having the sample is a great way to get started.

Behavior management techniques are interwoven throughout the text: reward positive progress, move from tangible to social rewards, track data. Clearly the authors have done their fair share of behavioral interventions in self-contained, general education, home and workplace settings with kids of all range of ages. The visual cueing is also a hallmark of special education.

This book will be a great go-to source for working with students who struggle with those "playing school" activities of EF. I know that it will be referred to frequently on my bookshelf.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

FLIPP the Switch and SOARR

In my quest to further develop my understanding of Executive Function (EF) disorders, I picked up FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills by Sheri Wilkins and Carol Burmeister. My pervious posting was about an EF workbook for teens (see here). Its target audience is higher functioning teen agers who can use it with little support. This book targets people with more significant challenges. Strategies include strong visual components that would be especially useful for people with ASD. They acknowledge that many people with disorders classified under the DSM and some physical medical concerns often show weaknesses in some EF skills, such as ADHD, ASD, TBI, Intellectual Disorders, SLD, and OCD. Critically, it is important that there is a range of EF skills and although there may be patterns of strength and weakness profiles, no two people have exactly the same skill set. Furthermore it is important to recognize that just because someone is weak in a skill area, it does not mean they cannot improve it or learn to effectively deal with it.

Wilkins and Burmeister group EF disorders in five categories: flexibility, leveled emotionality, impulse control, planning and problem solving. As Sarah Ward said years ago- it is not important how many categories you use, but how you address the problems.

One strategy from the Flexibility chapter that I found particularly interesting is called SOARR. Since I cannot find reference to it on Google, I believe they created it. Although they do not reference the work of Michelle Garcia Winner in this section, it pairs nicely with her social thinking framework. It also plays well with Sarah Ward's  STOP strategy (or see my post here):
  • Space – Where am I?
  • Time – What is happening now? Later?
  • Objects – How is the room organized?
  • People – What are the facial expressions/body language of the people?
There is a large recognition in all these approaches that expected social behaviors shift according to context. Without clearly understanding context, we cannot help people develop approaches to social success.

The text provides four concrete examples of the strategy for young people to use the strategy with vignettes describing the situation that led to the need for the strategy and a simple outcome of implementation of the strategy use. Below I have included a very slightly modified example of their template and a version of how I might have used it for my son's recent flight to visit relatives on the other coast. The book has the template in a landscape orientation that would probably work better because of the possible increase in writing space.

What is the situation/ specific context?
Ordering food and eating in a restaurant- what kind of restaurant
Participating in PE class
Attending a worship service
Joining a group in a general education class
What are other people doing in this situation?
How are they behaving?
What do I need to do to fit into this context?
What questions do I need to ask and answer in my head?
What is the noise level/volume?
Does the discussion/tone/mood seem fun or serious?
Is there a leader?
What is my role in this group and where do I fit in?
If I am unsure about something is there somebody I can approach with questions?
Based on my analysis, respond appropriately,
As I am responding, pay attention to how others are responding to me.
What happened?
What did I learn?
What can I do differently next time?

Blank SOARR template from Wilkins, S. and Burmeister, C. (2015) FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, p. 49

What is the situation/ specific context?

What are other people doing in this situation?
How are they behaving?
What do I need to do to fit into this context?
What questions do I need to ask and answer in my head?

Based on my analysis, respond appropriately,
As I am responding, pay attention to how others are responding to me.
What happened?
What did I learn?
What can I do differently next time?
In line at the airport to go through security
People are standing in line, keeping their hands to themselves. Some are in groups that are a little closer together, but most groups are not talking to each other. People are using a quiet voice. When asked a question or given a direction by a uniformed person, people do what is asked of them.
People are waiting. I need to wait to move with the line. I should not talk to people I do not know unless they ask me a question. I need to use a quiet voice. If I need help there are people in uniforms I can ask questions.
Some people do not move along in their line as quickly as they can, but I keep my comments about that to myself. I wait patiently for my turn at the various spots before moving on through the terminal.
It was hard to wait patiently because not everyone moved as fast as I wanted them to. I need to have my paperwork and ID in an easy to access location so I do not hold up the line.

I think working within this framework, young people could learn to address social issues, but training in reflection, problem solving and forecasting human behavior would be an important part of an intervention. This book has me eager to read to learn more concrete strategies for helping young people learn to deal with their weaknesses in EF.

Monday, June 19, 2017

executive functioning workbook for teens

Sharon A. Hansen penned a wonderful book for teenagers with executive function weaknesses, The Executive Functioning Workbook for Teens. Although this book will not provide all the tools, especially the motivation, to work on improving weak skills, it is a beginning.

The book opens with a letter to teens, inviting them improve their lives by learning skills they are not strong in. It is a welcoming, non-confrontational start. Then it moves to a brief checklist. As opposed to many other checklists I have seen and used it is brief. This one has four statements in each of 10 areas and youth are asked to circle the ones that describe them, such as I need to have directions repeated and I blurt out answers in class without being called on by the teacher. Then they can target the areas in which they circled 2 or more descriptors. If you were doing this with kids, I can see where it would take some degree of trust  to get accurate responses from them. Following the self-assessment are three activities per area to focus on. Each area of focus begins with a short vignette. These would be useful for getting buy in, a critical component for change. The exercises always begin with examining something not personal to the student- think about the story at the beginning, what might be some people's responses to these things. Then they move to the personal- what about in your life.

One thing that I think the book does not do well is demonstrate how long it can take to learn new skills and make a change. Although the beginning has a line about it takes 28 days to make a habit with a new skill, and for kids with a challenge in an area, it can take three times as long (p. x), it does not revisit that idea. One thing many people with executive function issues have is a lack of persistence. Developing ways to sustain the effort for three months or more is a daunting task and will require reinforcement and reminders. It showcases why even teachers who do a good job with initially teaching and reinforcing executive function skills have students that don't learn the skills- they are not reinforced long enough.

This book is going to be a useful tool to use with students, but the time component is one that I will need to keep in mind.