Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chronic Stress and the Achievement Gap

Jan. 31, 2011
Chronic stress appears to be linked
to low-income achievement gap
Gary Evans
Children in low-income families lag behind their higher-income counterparts on virtually all measures of achievement, and this gap tends to increase over time. There are many reasons why, but a Cornell environmental psychologist and his colleagues add a new culprit to the list: chronic stress from adverse neighborhood and family conditions.

Chronic stress, in addition to parents not investing much time in cognitively stimulating their children, "can hinder children's cognitive functioning and undermine development of the skills necessary to perform well in school," says
Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development, who has been studying the effects of poverty on children for more than two decades.

"Their homes, schools and neighborhoods are much more chaotic than those of their higher-income counterparts," he added. "They live with such stressors as pollution, noise, crowding, poor housing, inadequate school buildings, schools and neighborhoods with high turn-over, family conflict, family separation, and exposure to violence and crime. These conditions can produce toxic stress capable of damaging areas of the brain associated with attention, memory and language that form the foundation for academic success."

Writing in the winter issue of the magazine Pathways, a magazine on poverty, inequality and social policy published by the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, Evans and Columbia University's Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Princeton's Pamela Kato Kebanov describe their Risk-Stress Model. They point to research that shows how growing up in poverty is linked with dramatically increased risk factors and how this elevated risk is linked to higher stress levels among poor children.

They also describe their reanalysis of a national dataset of very young at-risk children to explore the relationship between family income and blood pressure and body mass index. Both are measures of stress, reflecting wear and tear on the body and are precursors of lifelong health problems.
The researchers found that babies growing up in low-income neighborhoods had health trajectories indicative of elevated chronic stress. Disturbingly, these patterns emerged very early in the lives of these children.

The authors also examined the link between chronic stress and achievement. There is some evidence that several areas of the brain -- language, long-term memory, working memory and executive control -- are sensitive to childhood poverty. New data are beginning to shed light on the question of whether these differences are attributable to cumulative risk and stress, Evans said.

In a recent follow-up in a longitudinal study of children in poverty, Evans and colleagues found that working memory at age 17 deteriorated in direct relation to the number of years the children lived in poverty. Importantly, this effect only occurred among the low-income children with chronically elevated physiological stress. Early childhood poverty did not lead to working memory deficits among children who had somehow escaped the stress that usually accompanies poverty.

Childhood poverty leads to lower academic and occupational achievement, in part, because the multiple risks typically faced by children growing up in poverty lead to chronic stress, which in turn, negatively affects children's cognitive abilities to succeed in school.

"We don't dispute the important roles of cognitive stimulation and parenting styles in socio-economic status differences in children's cognitive development," Evans says. "However if this new pathway is confirmed, it suggests new ways of understanding and ultimately intervening to break the income-achievement gap."

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Mistakes People Make - Special Education Advocates

From Wrightslaw Website:


Mistakes People Make - Advocates by Robert K. Crabtree
The non-lawyer advocate plays an extremely important role in the special education process. A well trained advocate (who is often the parent of a child with special needs herself) can provide invaluable assistance to parents trying to make their way through the complexities of special education law and procedures. A strong advocate can help parents to:
  • Obtain necessary information about their child and about available educational alternatives;
  • Organize presentations for key meetings;
  • Develop effective strategies and obtain necessary services; and
  • Make intelligent and realistic choices along the way.
Advocates need to be constantly mindful of the power of their role and the trust parents place in them. Parents see their advocate as the person with particular knowledge of a difficult system; they rely on that person to have a cool head and to apply keen, informed judgment every step of the way.

The more serious mistakes advocates may make are generally ones of excess -- excessive emotion that clouds judgment; excessive advice in areas beyond the advocate's expertise; excessive involvement in a case where the parents would be better off doing things for themselves; raising parents' expectations excessively; and feeding parents' sense of outrage rather than helping them cultivate a calm, persistent approach. (Please note that the roles of lay advocates and of lawyers are similar in many respects, and special education lawyers can and do make the same mistakes on occasion.) Here are some of the more common mistakes we see:

(1) Perhaps the most harmful mistake some advocates make is replaying their own special education or health advocacy battles through their advocacy for other families; this clouds the advocate's judgment and tends to create a hostile relationship between the family and the school system that has more to do with the advocate than with the family's real needs.

(2) Not informing parents up front what the special education process entails so that parents are aware from the beginning of the potential costs in time, money, and energy that will be required, particularly if they are seeking expensive services or an outside placement. For example, advocates should inform families that just obtaining an independent evaluation is not necessarily enough to convince a school system to implement the evaluator's recommendations (or a hearing officer to order them); the family may have to incur the evaluator's additional expense of school observation(s), consulting with the family's advocate and/or lawyer, testifying, etc.

(3) Assuming they know the child's disability and educational needs before the independent evaluation is complete. Also, attempting to interpret testing results, scores, percentiles, etc. without the experience and training to do so. These mistakes too often lead to giving advice outside of the advocate's expertise, setting parents up for a fall if the evaluator's findings and recommendations are different. The parent needs to hear from his/her independent evaluator, rather than the advocate, about what their child's needs are and what services or program might meet those needs.

(4) Raising parents' expectations too high without regard for the real limits of the process, the available services, and the legal standards that apply.

(5) Being habitually confrontational, mistaking an "in your face" approach for dealing from strength and encouraging parents to do likewise. Not only does this approach undermine the particular family's work with a school system; over time, the advocate gets a negative reputation and becomes increasingly ineffective for all his/her families.

(6) The opposite problem: becoming too "chummy" with the special education administrators the advocate deals with repeatedly. The best approach for the advocate -- and for the parent -- is to combine a steady skepticism with a willingness to try all reasonable options offered by the school system, and to treat even the most arrogant or adversarial school personnel with the same degree of respect the advocate and parent wish to receive themselves.

(7) Failing to learn about the child from the school personnel who work with him or her. The advocate should listen carefully to what the child's teachers say about the child and help the parents evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the teachers' opinions and observations, rather than simply rejecting them out of hand.

(8) Not staying informed about special education procedural and substantive requirements. This means being completely familiar with the governing laws and regulations, state and federal, and with changes in those laws as they are enacted (e.g., studying IDEA '97, the amendments to the federal special education law enacted in July 1997). It also means following the decisions that are issued by the due process administrative hearing officers in your state to know how issues are being decided and what kind of attitude to expect from the individuals who make those decisions.

(9) Not consulting with an attorney knowledgeable in special education law at key decision points and on difficult issues of law or procedure; waiting until it is too late for the lawyer to be fully effective.

Mistakes People Make - Parents (obtaining special education services)

From Wrightslaw Website:

Mistakes People Make - Parentsby Robert K. Crabtree, Esq.

Because the stakes are so high, it is difficult for parents of children with special educational needs to advocate calmly and objectively for the educational and related services their children need.

Here are some common mistakes that undermine parents' ability to obtain appropriate services:
1. Viewing the special education process as the moral equivalent of war, fighting that war with a "scorched earth" approach, and letting personal animosity toward administrators and/or teachers distort one's judgment about what is best for the child and what is realistic to accept;
2. The opposite mistake: trusting administrators and teachers too uncritically; assuming that if they are "nice" they are also competent and interested in serving the child's best interest; not questioning slow, or nonexistent progress as long as the child, parent and teacher have a cordial relationship;
3. Taking an "all or nothing" approach: waiting too long before getting good independent advice, then insisting on instant delivery of needed services rather than steady progress toward the right program;
4. Failing to understand that the special education process sometimes requires that the parent educate the child's special education team about the child's disabilities and needs (the school system may not be willfully refusing to meet the child's needs; they may simply not understand those needs);
5. Not trying a program or added services, even on a temporary basis, when they are offered by the school system -- holding out for an alternative program only to have a hearing officer decide the untried program might have worked;
6. Attempting to "micro-manage" the details of a child's life in school; even if parents don't feel things are going well, their efforts to control the child's day usually backfire when the hearing officer concludes that the parents were over-protective and didn't let the school professionals do their job;
7. Focusing on minor, nonprejudicial procedural missteps by the school (e.g., the parent who already knows her rights who says, "Aha! Gotcha! School district forgot to give me the rights brochure!") instead of focusing on the substantial issues in the case;
8. Not consenting to school evaluations;
9. Choosing the wrong independent evaluators: e.g., "hired guns" who only say what the parents want them to say, and have a reputation for doing so; those who will not follow through by observing programs, attending team meetings, etc.; those who do not have training or experience to evaluate a child like yours;
10. Not providing copies of independent evaluations to the school, or not providing them in a timely way;
11. Not responding in a timely way to proposed IEPs;
12. Not documenting issues with the school; not sending letters to confirm agreements with the school or to record important conversations with school personnel.
13. Seeing the school system as a monolith ("All those teachers are incompetent [or wonderful!]"); failing to look carefully at alternatives within the system for this year and at next year's teacher possibilities.

Mistakes Independent Experts Make

From Wrightslaw Website:

Mistakes Independent Experts Make
by Pete Wright, Esq.

It is good to have an expert in your corner during the IEP process. Experts provide valuable assistance. But sometimes experts make mistakes that can turn a positive situation into a negative.
A psychologist wrote that she had advocated for a family for over a year. During that year she developed a positive working relationship and worked well with school staff. Now, she is at odds with the school. The principal has limited her ability to visit the school to observe students.
The principal informed the mother that in the future I would need to provide TWO WEEKS notice of my plans to conduct any classroom observations.
The principal took this action after the psychologist filed two complaints against the school with the state Department of Education.
Why? The psychologist wonders. She doesn't seem to understand the impact her actions had on school personnel. School staff felt betrayed by her when she filed two complaints.
Betrayal and Retaliation
The response from the principal is normal human behavior. It should not come as a surprise.
The psychologist explained, "Historically . . . the teachers and I have regularly worked together to address problems as they arise." However, she filed a complaint on behalf of a parent last year. She filed another complaint this year.
How did the principal and other school personnel view these complaints? In a word, betrayal.
The cooperative relationship she had with the school in the past survived one complaint. When the psychologist filed a second complaint, the positive relationship ended.
When people feel betrayed, they usually look for a way to retaliate.
Who Should File Complaints - Parent or Expert?
It is doubtful this problem would have happened if the parent, rather than the psychologist, filed the complaint.
In most situations, school personnel do not typically feel betrayed when a parent files a complaint. They feel anger.
When the school works cooperatively with an independent expert, or has an extremely cooperative relationship with a parent, a complaint coming in out of the blue catches them by surprise.
When people feel betrayed they seek vengeance and think retaliatory thoughts.
Pete Wright describes how he feels when someone wrongs him and he feels betrayed.
Do I think through how to retaliate an eye for an eye? Never.
Do I think through how to turn the other cheek? Nope.
I try to settle the score with one eye for an eye. Then a second eye to serve as
  • an additional punishment and
  • a deterrent for future behavior.
Special Education Disputes
The principal's initial reaction could have been closing the door absolutely. He chose to permit observations, but with advance notice.
Special education disputes, and special education dispute resolution procedures are akin to messy divorce / custody domestic relations struggles. Both sides experience feelings of betrayal and anger. They seek vengeance.
Typically, aggrieved wronged spouses, just as special ed parents, use the word "justice" in lieu of vengeance. But the emotional feelings and motivators are the same.
Parent as Complainant
Parents should take complaints, not someone on their behalf.
Parents need to be taught and must learn the skills for effective advocacy. Their struggles will not just end when the youngster ages out of special education. The struggles will repeat themselves with other individuals, other agencies, and other issues.

Mistakes People Make - School Districts

From Wrightslaw website:


Mistakes People Make - School Districts by Robert K. Crabtree, Esq.

Anything a school system does that undermines parents' trust creates a climate that is costly in dollars, time, peace of mind, and the quality and success of services given to the child.
Here are the most significant school system mistakes, according to persons at every level of the system:

1. Refusing to let parents or parents' experts see programs, either within or outside of the school system. When school systems tightly restrict the parents' access to their own programs, the parents wonder what they are hiding and assume the worst; when they refuse to clear the way for parents to see an outside program, the parents will assume that the grass is greener over there;

2. Failing or refusing to communicate and actively coordinate with outside experts working with the child, such as the child's therapist or a tutor;

3. Ignoring reports from independent evaluators; failing to speak to those evaluators to clarify ambiguous information or recommendations; failing to add the evaluator's recommendations to the IEP when reasonable;

4. Failing to respond to parents in writing or at a meeting when a problem arises;

5. Taking a patronizing and/or antagonistic and/or insulting attitude toward parents; personalizing issues between school and parents; attempting to blame parents for their children's educational failures rather than looking for solutions (school system professionals need to treat parents with respect even if those parents are insulting and belligerent themselves);

6. Sweating the small stuff (e.g., spending twenty minutes at a team meeting arguing about whether the meeting can be tape-recorded);

7. Failing to observe procedural timelines and notice requirements (e.g., scheduling timely meetings, getting evaluations to the parents before the team meeting, notifying the parents who will attend the meeting, providing clear written explanations of parent rights);

8. Writing careless and sloppy IEPs. Parents, evaluators, and hearing officers all look first at the extent to which the written IEP reflects a thorough and logically coherent view of the child, the goals and objectives for that child's program, and a clear and understandable description of what will be provided, how, by whom, and when; and how the child's program will be evaluated;

9. Failing to implement an IEP and, worse, trying to cover up that failure;

10. Failing to modify an IEP that is not working and waiting, instead, for the program - and the child - to collapse;

11. Failing to provide additional or different services as a way to avoid having to make more restrictive (and expensive) outside placements;

12. Failing to call in expert consultants from outside the school system with good reputations among both school and parent communities who can help develop or monitor a program for a child with unusual needs;

13. Losing contact with families who have placed their child unilaterally. Some school systems forget or ignore their continuing responsibility to evaluate, review, and propose IEPs for children when they are attending outside placements at their parents' expense;

14. Botching the required procedures around suspension or expulsion of students with identified or suspected special education needs (e.g., failing to convene the team, failing to make a manifestation determination, failing to re-examine the IEP to see if services are appropriate and have actually been provided, failure to provide FAPE to suspended or expelled students with special education needs;

15. Failing to ensure that non-special education administrators - particularly building principals - are fully informed about and are following the required special education policies and procedures.

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills


Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

February 21, 2008
On October 3, 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on television. As we all now know, the show quickly became a cultural icon, one of those phenomena that helped define an era.
What is less remembered but equally, if not more, important, is that another transformative cultural event happened that day: The Mattel toy company began advertising a gun called the "Thunder Burp."
I know — who's ever heard of the Thunder Burp?

Well, no one.

The reason the advertisement is significant is because it marked the first time that any toy company had attempted to peddle merchandise on television outside of the Christmas season. Until 1955, ad budgets at toy companies were minuscule, so the only time they could afford to hawk their wares on TV was during Christmas. But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.

"It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."

Chudacoff's recently published history of child's play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.

"They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors... or whether it was on a street corner or somebody's back yard," Chudacoff says. "They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules."

But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child's play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children's imaginative space.
But commercialization isn't the only reason imagination comes under siege. In the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff says, parents became increasingly concerned about safety, and were driven to create play environments that were secure and could not be penetrated by threats of the outside world. Karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps — these create safe environments for children, Chudacoff says. And they also do something more: for middle-class parents increasingly worried about achievement, they offer to enrich a child's mind.

Change in Play, Change in Kids

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids' cognitive and emotional development.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

The Importance of Self-Regulation

According to Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

"In fact, if we compare preschoolers' activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play," Berk says. "And this type of self-regulating language... has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions."

And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."

Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children's private speech declines. Essentially, because children's play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids' toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren't getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, says Berk, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.

"One index that researchers, including myself, have used... is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool," Berk says. "We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with... greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting."

Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children's play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don't see the value.

"Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time," Singer says. "I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills."

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teenage Weirdness: What's Wrong With the Teenage Brain?



What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?

Children today reach puberty earlier and adulthood later. The result: A lot of teenage weirdness. Alison Gopnik on how we might readjust adolescence.

"What was he thinking?" It's the familiar cry of bewildered parents trying to understand why their teenagers act the way they do.
How does the boy who can thoughtfully explain the reasons never to drink and drive end up in a drunken crash? Why does the girl who knows all about birth control find herself pregnant by a boy she doesn't even like? What happened to the gifted, imaginative child who excelled through high school but then dropped out of college, drifted from job to job and now lives in his parents' basement?
Harry Campbell
If you think of the teenage brain as a car, today's adolescents a
cquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.
Adolescence has always been troubled, but for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, puberty is now kicking in at an earlier and earlier age. A leading theory points to changes in energy balance as children eat more and move less.
At the same time, first with the industrial revolution and then even more dramatically with the information revolution, children have come to take on adult roles later and later. Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare knew that the  emotionally intense combination of teenage sexuality and peer-induced risk could be tragic—witness "Romeo and Juliet." But, on the other hand, if not for fate, 13-year-old Juliet would have become a wife and mother within a year or two.
Our Juliets (as parents longing for grandchildren will recognize with a sigh) may experience the tumult of love for 20 years before they settle down into motherhood. And our Romeos may be poetic lunatics under the influence of Queen Mab until they are well into graduate school.

What happens when children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later? The answer is: a good deal of teenage weirdness. Fortunately, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists are starting to explain the foundations of that weirdness.

The crucial new idea is that there are two different neural and psychological systems that interact to turn children into adults. Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.

The first of these systems has to do with emotion and motivation. It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards. This is the system that turns placid 10-year-olds into restless, exuberant, emotionally intense teenagers, desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire and experience every sensation. Later, it turns them back into relatively placid adults.

Recent studies in the neuroscientist B.J. Casey's lab at Cornell University suggest that adolescents aren't reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love, the never-to-be-recaptured glory of the high-school basketball championship.

What teenagers want most of all are social rewards, especially the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in an fMRI brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks.

From an evolutionary point of view, this all makes perfect sense. One of the most distinctive evolutionary features of human beings is our unusually long, protected childhood. Human children depend on adults for much longer than those of any other primate. That long protected period also allows us to learn much more than any other animal. But eventually, we have to leave the safe bubble of family life, take what we learned as children and apply it to the real adult world.

Becoming an adult means leaving the world of your parents and starting to make your way toward the future that you will share with your peers. Puberty not only turns on the motivational and emotional system with new force, it also turns it away from the family and toward the world of equals.

The second crucial system in our brains has to do with control; it channels and harnesses all that seething energy. In particular, the prefrontal cortex reaches out to guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making, that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.

This control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them. You get to be a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience. As the old joke has it, the answer to the tourist's question "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is "Practice, practice, practice."

In the distant (and even the not-so-distant) historical past, these systems of motivation and control were largely in sync. In gatherer-hunter and farming societies, childhood education involves formal and informal apprenticeship. Children have lots of chances to practice the skills that they need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors. The cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied this kind of informal education in a Guatemalan Indian society, where she found that apprenticeship allowed even young children to become adept at difficult and dangerous tasks like using a machete.
In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you'd need as an adult. But you'd do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you'd be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you'd also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.
In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.
At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.
The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.
This doesn't mean that adolescents are stupider than they used to be. In many ways, they are much smarter. An ever longer protected period of immaturity and dependence—a childhood that extends through college—means that young humans can learn more than ever before. There is strong evidence that IQ has increased dramatically as more children spend more time in school, and there is even some evidence that higher IQ is correlated with delayed frontal lobe development.
All that school means that children know more about more different subjects than they ever did in the days of apprenticeships. Becoming a really expert cook doesn't tell you about the nature of heat or the chemical composition of salt—the sorts of things you learn in school.
But there are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.
The old have always complained about the young, of course. But this new explanation based on developmental timing elegantly accounts for the paradoxes of our particular crop of adolescents.
There do seem to be many young adults who are enormously smart and knowledgeable but directionless, who are enthusiastic and exuberant but unable to commit to a particular kind of work or a particular love until well into their 20s or 30s. And there is the graver case of children who are faced with the uncompromising reality of the drive for sex, power and respect, without the expertise and impulse control it takes to ward off unwanted pregnancy or violence.
This new explanation also illustrates two really important and often overlooked facts about the mind and brain. First, experience shapes the brain. People often think that if some ability is located in a particular part of the brain, that must mean that it's "hard-wired" and inflexible. But, in fact, the brain is so powerful precisely because it is so sensitive to experience. It's as true to say that our experience of controlling our impulses make the prefrontal cortex develop as it is to say that prefrontal development makes us better at controlling our impulses. Our social and cultural life shapes our biology.
Second, development plays a crucial role in explaining human nature. The old "evolutionary psychology" picture was that genes were directly responsible for some particular pattern of adult behavior—a "module." In fact, there is more and more evidence that genes are just the first step in complex developmental sequences, cascades of interactions between organism and environment, and that those developmental processes shape the adult brain. Even small changes in developmental timing can lead to big changes in who we become.
Fortunately, these characteristics of the brain mean that dealing with modern adolescence is not as hopeless as it might sound. Though we aren't likely to return to an agricultural life or to stop feeding our children well and sending them to school, the very flexibility of the developing brain points to solutions.
Brain research is often taken to mean that adolescents are really just defective adults—grown-ups with a missing part. Public policy debates about teenagers thus often turn on the question of when, exactly, certain areas of the brain develop, and so at what age children should be allowed to drive or marry or vote—or be held fully responsible for crimes. But the new view of the adolescent brain isn't that the prefrontal lobes just fail to show up; it's that they aren't properly instructed and exercised.
Simply increasing the driving age by a year or two doesn't have much influence on the accident rate, for example. What does make a difference is having a graduated system in which teenagers slowly acquire both more skill and more freedom—a driving apprenticeship.
Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision.
"Take your child to work" could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, now so common for children whose parents have means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs, with real responsibilities.
The good news, in short, is that we don't have to just accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them.

Ms. Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life." Adapted from an essay that she wrote for www.edge.org, in response to the website's 2012 annual question: "What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?"

Friday, January 27, 2012

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Op-Ed Columnist

A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug

New York Times
Published: January 7, 2012

PERHAPS the most widespread peril children face isn’t guns, swimming pools or speeding cars. Rather, scientists are suggesting that it may be “toxic stress” early in life, or even before birth.

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics is issuing a landmark warning that this toxic stress can harm children for life. I’m as skeptical as anyone of headlines from new medical studies (Coffee is good for you! Coffee is bad for you!), but that’s not what this is.

Rather, this is a “policy statement” from the premier association of pediatricians, based on two decades of scientific research. This has revolutionary implications for medicine and for how we can more effectively chip away at poverty and crime.

Toxic stress might arise from parental abuse of alcohol or drugs. It could occur in a home where children are threatened and beaten. It might derive from chronic neglect — a child cries without being cuddled. Affection seems to defuse toxic stress — keep those hugs and lullabies coming! — suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector.

Cues of a hostile or indifferent environment flood an infant, or even a fetus, with stress hormones like cortisol in ways that can disrupt the body’s metabolism or the architecture of the brain.

The upshot is that children are sometimes permanently undermined. Even many years later, as adults, they are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments. They are also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.

The crucial period seems to be from conception through early childhood. After that, the brain is less pliable and has trouble being remolded.

“You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,” notes Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician who has been a leader in this field. “We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning.”

This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth: Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine, but others may skip school, abuse narcotics, break the law, and have trouble settling down in a marriage and a job. Then their children may replicate this pattern.

Liberals sometimes ignore these self-destructive pathologies. Conservatives sometimes rely on them to blame poverty on the poor.

The research suggests that the roots of impairment and underachievement are biologically embedded, but preventable. “This is the biology of social class disparities,” Dr. Shonkoff said. “Early experiences are literally built into our bodies.”

The implication is that the most cost-effective window to bring about change isn’t high school or even kindergarten — although much greater efforts are needed in schools as well — but in the early years of life, or even before birth.

“Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health,” the pediatrics academy said in its policy statement.

One successful example of early intervention is home visitation by childcare experts, like those from the Nurse-Family Partnership. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2.

At age 6, studies have found, these children are only one-third as likely to have behavioral or intellectual problems as others who weren’t enrolled. At age 15, the children are less than half as likely to have been arrested.

Evidence of the importance of early experiences has been mounting like snowflakes in a blizzard. For example, several studies examined Dutch men and women who had been in utero during a brief famine at the end of World War II. Decades later, those “famine babies” had more trouble concentrating and more heart disease than those born before or after.

Other scholars examined children who had been badly neglected in Romanian orphanages. Those who spent more time in the orphanages had shorter telomeres, a change in chromosomes that’s a marker of accelerated aging. Their brain scans also looked different.

The science is still accumulating. But a compelling message from biology is that if we want to chip away at poverty and improve educational and health outcomes, we have to start earlier. For many children, damage has been suffered before the first day of school.

As Frederick Douglass noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 8, 2012, on page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Teachers Want to Lead the Transformation of their Profession


Teachers Want to Lead the Transformation of their Profession

“Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
– President Barack Obama, January 24, 2012, “State of the Union”
Tuesday night President Barack Obama said what many teachers in America have been yearning to hear from their president: teachers matter, we change lives, and we do this hard work to make a difference in the lives of students.

He also acknowledged what every good teacher knows: that an accountability system that puts too much emphasis on test scores undermines a well-rounded education. But implicit in his speech was a challenge to America and to teachers to rebuild and strengthen the profession – a challenge that teachers are more than eager to accept.

As 2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we have heard from many teachers that the field has lost its luster. In our role as Teaching Ambassadors, we have talked with teachers in many groups, and we have heard real despondency over the constraints of NCLB that have caused schools to focus on testing and teacher evaluation in ways that are oppressive and rob our profession of much of the joy of teaching and learning.

We’ve listened to countless stories about a law that has raised standards without providing support for schools to meet them. And we have cringed when some of our most effective colleagues acknowledged that they can no longer afford to stay in a difficult profession that asks so much of them but barely affords a middleclass lifestyle. “We didn’t get into teaching to be millionaires,” they say, “but we have to be able to feed our families.”

What we like about the President’s speech is not that he acknowledges our grievances though, admittedly, it feels good to be heard. What appeals to us is that the President understands that as a country we must do much more than simply tweak a structure that is not working. Educators want to lead the transformation and rebuilding of teaching so that our work improves students’ lives and restores pride in our profession.

Teachers welcome this transformation. Neither students nor teachers are served by a structure that treats some teachers like interchangeable cogs in a machine. We long to lead our own profession because when we drive our craft, we will see huge shifts in the responsibility, leadership, pay and respect. As NEA President Dennis Van Roekel describes in the NEA’s December 8, 2011 Action Agenda to Strengthen Teaching, “The true essence” of our work “is putting teachers in charge of the quality of their profession.”

What would teachers do if they ran the schools? We would raise the bar for membership in our profession, recruiting the best candidates and insisting that teacher preparation programs become more rigorous and relevant. About 62 percent of all new teachers—almost two-thirds—report they felt unprepared for the realities of their classroom. As Secretary Duncan has said, “Imagine what our country would do if 62 percent of our doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine—you would have a revolution in our medical schools.”

A transformed profession would give teachers much more responsibility and flexibility to make decisions that meet their students’ educational needs–allowing access to and training with technology, shifting class sizes, and restructuring the school day so that they have time to collaborate with colleagues and engage in professional learning and problem-solving.

We would offer teachers a professional salary and career pathways that acknowledge their skill and commitment in one of the most complex, demanding, and important jobs in the world. We would insist on great school leaders, with principals who have high expectations, develop all teachers as lifelong learners, and create positive school cultures where students and teachers succeed.

As the President acknowledged, teachers are creative and passionate. But like workers in many other professions, we expect to be held accountable for results. We yearn to help create fair and thorough teacher evaluation systems and have access to data to make informed decisions about what is working and what isn’t, to direct our professional learning, and to help decide who stays in our profession. President Obama was right when he said, “That is a bargain worth making.”

Now more than ever, teachers long to lead their profession so that we finally resolve the important educational challenges in this country. A quarter of our children fail to finish high school on time and barely four in ten earn any type of post-secondary degree. For children of color, outcomes are even worse. When we see the statistics–that 7,000 students drop out of school every day–we feel pain for those teens and shame and guilt that we were not able to prevent this tragedy.

On top of that, school districts are getting ready to slam into an awful reality, that before the end of the decade, more than a million Baby Boomer teachers—fully a third of America’s teachers–will retire or leave the teaching profession. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we need to offer rewarding jobs and competitive salaries.

We were especially pleased to read in the Blueprint for an America Built to Last, released yesterday with the speech transcript, that the President plans to ask Congress for funding that will “challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to reform the entire teaching profession – from training and licensing to compensation, career ladders and tenure.”

Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the President understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.

2011 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellows Geneviève DeBose, Claire Jellinek, Greg Mullenholz, Shakera Walker, and Maryann Woods-Murphy.

True Cost of High School Dropouts

Op-Ed Contributors

The True Cost of High School Dropouts
Published: January 25, 2012

ONLY 21 states require students to attend high school until they graduate or turn 18. The proposal President Obama announced on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address — to make such attendance compulsory in every state — is a step in the right direction, but it would not go far enough to reduce a dropout rate that imposes a heavy cost on the entire economy, not just on those who fail to obtain a diploma.
 In 1970, the United States had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education.
Only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas. A decade after the No Child Left Behind law mandated efforts to reduce the racial gap, about 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate from high school, compared with only 55 percent of blacks and Hispanics.
Like President Obama, many reformers focus their dropout prevention efforts on high schoolers; replacing large high schools with smaller learning communities where poor students can get individualized instruction from dedicated teachers has been shown to be effective. Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start even earlier: preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.

These programs sound expensive — some Americans probably think that preventing 1.3 million students from dropping out of high school each year can’t be done — but in fact the costs of inaction are far greater.

High school completion is, of course, the most significant requirement for entering college. While our economic competitors are rapidly increasing graduation rates at both levels, we continue to fall behind. Educated workers are the basis of economic growth — they are especially critical as sources of innovation and productivity given the pace and nature of technological progress.

If we could reduce the current number of dropouts by just half, we would yield almost 700,000 new graduates a year, and it would more than pay for itself. Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Further, because of the increased income, the typical graduate will contribute more in tax revenues over his lifetime than if he’d dropped out.

When the costs of investment to produce a new graduate are taken into account, there is a return of $1.45 to $3.55 for every dollar of investment, depending upon the educational intervention strategy. Under this estimate, each new graduate confers a net benefit to taxpayers of about $127,000 over the graduate’s lifetime. This is a benefit to the public of nearly $90 billion for each year of success in reducing the number of high school dropouts by 700,000 — or something close to $1 trillion after 11 years. That’s real money — and a reason both liberals and conservatives should rally behind dropout prevention as an element of economic recovery, leaving aside the ethical dimensions of educating our young people.

Some might argue that these estimates are too large, that the relationships among the time-tested interventions, high school graduation rates and adult outcomes have not been proved yet on a large scale. Those are important considerations, but the evidence cannot be denied: increased education does, indeed, improve skill levels and help individuals to lead healthier and more productive lives. And despite the high unemployment rate today, we have every reason to believe that many of these new graduates would find work — our history is filled with sustained periods of economic growth when increasing numbers of young people obtained more schooling and received large economic benefits as a result.

Of course, there are other strategies for improving educational attainment — researchers learn more every day about which are effective and which are not. But even with what we know, a failure to substantially reduce the numbers of high school dropouts is demonstrably penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Proven educational strategies to increase high school completion, like high-quality preschool, provide returns to the taxpayer that are as much as three and a half times their cost. Investing our public dollars wisely to reduce the number of high school dropouts must be a central part of any strategy to raise long-run economic growth, reduce inequality and return fiscal health to our federal, state and local governments.

Henry M. Levin is a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Cecilia E. Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, was a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2009 to 2011.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 26, 2012, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: The True Cost Of High School Dropouts.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Gifts of Vulnerability


Excellent video, 20 minutes long, discussing the gifts of vulnerability.  Brene Brown is easy and fun to listen to.  Enjoy!

Math Intervention For Students Who Struggle

For Students with Math-Related Disabilities or Math Difficulties, the Successful Educational Intervention is the Same

By David Berg, E.T.
Founder/Director of the Making Math Real Institute
Creator of the Making Math Real Multisensory Structured Methodologies
in Mathematics, K-12

The reality for some students that math can be persistently difficult and overwhelming is hardly newsworthy. As educators and parents (and for us as well when we were kids) we continue to experience the exclamations of frustrated students, “I hate math,” “Math is boring,” “I’m dumb, I’m stupid, I’ll never be good at math,” “What’s the point of this stuff - when will I ever need to use parabolas in my life?”

There are numerous valid reasons why students may feel this way, and none of the reasons I know of are the students’ fault, because there is no educational justification for any student to fail in math.

Over the last 20 years in our educational system, there has been a valuable focus on literacy development in our country. Some of the significant improvements made during this time include:
  • Increased understanding of research connecting neurodevelopment with specific instructional practices
  • Increased use of multisensory structured reading and language programs
  • Improved professional development for teachers to help expand understanding and application of more comprehensive and inclusive programs
  • Improved assessment to help teachers address specific educational needs of students

The results of our nationwide focus on literacy have been an important and much needed step in the right direction, yet there is still much to do in continuing this positive development. However, in our cultural focus on literacy, have we forgotten something? What about math? Math has been the neglected curriculum for far too long. For example, according to the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), research on reading and language far exceeds the research on math. In the 34 years I have been an educator I have witnessed the money, time, and energy spent on professional development, programs, and materials for reading and literacy far exceed the expenditures for math. In numerous districts and schools I have observed across the country, the time allotted each day for reading far exceeds the time devoted to math.

The development of numeracy is of equal importance and value as is the development of literacy. Numeracy means being literate with numbers and math. As literacy refers to the ability to read for meaningfulness, to interact critically with the literature, so too, does numeracy refer to the ability to interact critically with the mathematics with depth of comprehension, not the mere memorization of procedural steps. In my opinion, the development of literacy and numeracy should be the focal points of K-12 education in our nation today. As parents and educators, we need to guarantee our high school graduates are both literate and numerate.

Since there has been significant research in the area of reading, there are definitions of and widespread agreement on the nature of learning disabilities in reading, specifically, dyslexia. However, there has been relatively little research in the area of math (despite the recent upsurge since 2005), and consequently, there is no current consensus on the core deficits including definitions, or means of identifying math-related disabilities, specifically, dyscalculia. Regardless of the current lack of consensus in determining the precise nature of math disability, the existence of math-related learning disabilities is indisputable.

Furthermore, researchers are attempting to distinguish between students with math-based learning disabilities versus those struggling with “math difficulties.” All of the ongoing research in mathematics is highly worthwhile and will continue to provide all of us with valuable information as developments in research progress. However, it is essential to understand that the successful intervention and remediation for students with math-based learning disabilities or math difficulties are the same. Both populations require an explicit, developmental, comprehensive, and multisensory-structured methodology in mathematics. The intervention and/or remediation must be provided by highly trained educators, thoroughly knowledgeable of the content, and capable of delivering the curriculum prescriptively in alignment with students’ individual and/or collective processing styles. Therefore, from a practical and educational standpoint it is not crucial to distinguish between math disability and math difficulty. All students need the most appropriate and most prescriptive interventions we can provide.

Over the last 34 years I have worked across the country with more than 10,000 students of all ages and processing styles. According to my experience and research, at least half of our students nationwide are experiencing some degree of math difficulty. One of various indications of this widespread challenge in math is the conservative estimate that 40 – 60% of students nationwide are failing algebra I. The repeated concerns I have received from middle school, high school, community college teachers, and parents is the following: “Our students have not learned the math basics such as the multiplication facts, fractions or place value.” Representing one of many sources confirming this ongoing national problem in mathematics comes from the State of California Department of Education’s California Basic Educational Data System, retrieved December 8, 2008. According to this statewide data collected from 2003 -2008, the highest level of achievement overall for California algebra students has only been 22% scoring at proficient or higher.

In addition, my research, assessment data, and experience have shown me that students with math disabilities and students who struggle do not lack the intelligence or the motivation to be successful in math. Typically, they lack the underlying perceptual and associative processing tools that enable all of us to successfully process numbers and math. In essence, processing means information in, information out, i.e., how we receive information, make sense of it, store it, retrieve it, and express it. These processing tools, known as sensory-cognitive development (“cognitive” refers to processing), help us to express what we know - they provide a direct conduit in both directions connecting processing to intelligence.

Sensory-cognitive development for math refers to the specific ability of using the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-motoric senses to engage and support the successful processing of numerical and/or mathematical symbols. Students with under-developed sensory-cognitive abilities often have limited access to memory and are characteristically challenged by learning, retaining, and applying the math facts, recalling formulas and definitions, remembering the sequences and structure of multi-step problem solving, integrating concepts with their respective procedures, and managing all the details in their procedural work.

Processing exists as a means for all of us to express what we know. If the mathematical processing tools are not developed, then it appears as if we do not know the math. Just as carpenters express their craft through the practiced and developed use of tools: hammers, saws, drills, etc., we also use sensory-cognitive processing tools to express what we know about math. Imagine the carpenter with an empty tool belt. How does the carpenter express his/her craft without the tools? It is the same for students with math-related learning disabilities or who struggle in math. Without developed processing tools, they are not able to express what they know. Unfortunately, students with underdeveloped sensory-cognitive tools may be misperceived as less intelligent and less capable than their peers who, by fortune of genetic makeup, possess developed processing tools. Therefore, it is eminently possible to be highly intelligent despite the developmental lack of certain mathematically-based processing tools.

A case study of a client I worked with several years ago presents a strong example supporting the distinction between processing development and intelligence. The client was 42 years of age, a graduate of M. I. T. and currently worked for NASA. According to assessment, this individual’s overall intelligence was in the 99th percentile and he presented as someone extremely accomplished, if not brilliant. However, until the moment of our work together, he had never learned the math facts. My assessment of his sensory-cognitive development for learning and retaining the math facts did indicate extreme underdevelopment. When I asked him how he managed the academic demands of rigorous math and science courses throughout his school career, he responded by telling me how he used his intelligence to create compensatory methods to solve calculations with the math facts. He also confirmed that he benefited from his strong ability to understand the concepts easily, but his compensatory methods for calculation tended to slow him down relative to his peers, and he also felt he had to work much harder than his peers, which in turn made him feel less intelligent than his peers.

This client’s experience, despite the years of stress and anxiety he felt throughout school, is most unique. Through tenacity and determination he was able to endure and succeed without the benefit of a prescriptive intervention to develop the sensory-cognitive development for learning and retaining the math facts. His experience is not representative of the larger group. I have worked with thousands of students who, until receiving prescriptive interventions and remediations for developing their sensory-cognitive tools, had given up on math and furthering their integration of numeracy.

In alignment with my experience and research, it is important to note that regardless of the 42-year-old client’s high intelligence and strong work ethic, his sensory-cognitive tools remained underdeveloped until he received prescriptive interventions as an adult. In other words, these sensory-cognitive tools are not maturational. They do not develop on their own as we get older. They do not develop simply because we are determined and work hard. They develop because an experienced educator has assessed that these processing tools are underdeveloped and has addressed the development of these sensory-cognitive tools with prescriptive methods.

As with the 42-year-old brilliant client, I have frequently observed students express their confusion and frustration when they know they are as smart as their peers, yet have to struggle constantly in math while some of their peers make math seem effortless. According to my experience, the two strongest indications for successful remediation are 1) the delivery of math curriculum specifically designed to support and develop these crucial processing tools, and 2) the delivery of math curriculum in alignment with students’ individual processing styles to ensure they successfully process the curriculum. NOTE: Every time individuals process successfully, their processing tools get stronger and more developed.

Since there is not yet a specific determination of dyscalculia, it is difficult to ascertain an accurate percentage of the population with this math-related learning disability. In my opinion and experience, it is not of primary importance to quantify the number of people specifically identified with dyscalculia or any other form of math-related learning disabilities separate from students who struggle in math. The issue of real importance is providing prescriptive help for all these students - and the methods for helping all these students is the same. However, if these students do not receive interventions that directly address the development of the math-based sensory-cognitive processing tools, the likelihood of negative outcomes increase sharply whether or not students have math-related learning disabilities or consistently struggle with math.

For students who do not get their educational needs met in mathematics I have repeatedly observed an ongoing subtractive development not only in the area of math which directly underlies the pervasive and increasing gap in achievement for these students, but far more seriously in their ability to trust their own mathematical sense. As I observe these students when confronted with any component of math, I note significant anxiety in their affect and behavior. Frequently, these students do not know if their solutions are right or wrong. They cannot trust their own mathematical problem solving ability. This horrible feeling and experience, if not addressed appropriately, may lead to academic wounding. Academic wounding is the internalization of the personally based myth of the pre-conception of failure: “I hate math,” “Math is boring,” “I’m dumb, I’m stupid. I’ll never be good at math.” Academic wounding can affect all students, with or without learning disabilities. If not appropriately addressed, academic wounding may persist indefinitely into adulthood until such time as the individual repeatedly experiences authentic and indisputable success.

I have personally encountered thousands of adults experience powerful releases of emotion upon realizing they were not actually “stupid,” and they could have been successful in math. These same people frequently breakdown weeping in the pain, loss, and sorrow for having believed in a most inaccurate and unnecessary personal myth. The good news is that the successful development of numeracy can begin or continue developing at any time of life.

Copyright ©1996-2009 David Berg