New Research Shows How to Minimize Side Effects of Chemo

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Key Points:Fast ForWord and chemotherapy

  • Regardless of age, cancer treatments impair learning, memory and attention
  • The speed of processing information can also be diminished
  • These effects can last for months, or even years, after cancer treatment is finished
  • Research study shows Fast ForWord can help prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment

The cognitive impact of chemotherapy on children

When any of us are told someone we love has a diagnosis of cancer, “The Emperor of all Maladies” so aptly named by Siddhartha Mukherjee, it is very upsetting. But, when it is a parent who learns of a cancer diagnosis in their child, time seems to stand still for months, often years, as treatments are administered.  The good news is that the overall mortality rate from cancer has decreased markedly in the last 20 years. For children diagnosed with cancer, today’s cure rate exceeds 80% for some types of cancer. Earlier diagnosis and more specifically targeted forms of chemotherapy, combined with evidence-based protocols, mean many children are now miraculous survivors of this age-old, but very complex, illness.

After cancer – what are the implications on learning?

However, the success of targeted chemo and radiation therapy does come with a price. With improved survival rates, oncologists have become more aware of the aftereffects that childhood cancer treatments have on thinking, learning and remembering.  According to Jorg Dietrich at Massachusetts General Hospital and his colleagues at Stanford University and Anderson Cancer Center, conventional cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiology for brain tumors in patients of any age frequently result in a variety of thinking and memory of problems. These neurocognitive deficits, as they are called, include impaired learning, memory, attention, and negatively impact the speed of information processing.

Increased survival rates = increased studies on effects

Interested specifically in those effects on children treated for cancer, Raymond Mulhern and Shawna Palmer at St. Jude’s Research Hospital have reported that the neurocognitive effects of cancer treatment on children can linger for months, or even years, after cancer treatment has been successfully completed. This new understanding of the long term effects of successful cancer treatment has resulted in an increase in the study and understanding of cancer treatment-related learning problems.  Fortunately, it has also led to an increase in research on effective methods for treating the cognitive aftereffects of successful cancer treatment.

According to Mulhern and Palmer, the two most frequent types of childhood cancers that are associated with neurocognitive disorders after successful treatment are acute lymphoblastic leukemia and brain tumors.  The authors state that although neurocognitive effects of cancer therapy are quite variable – depending on the actual diagnosis and age, length and dosage of therapy – researchers generally agree that a high percentage of children will experience problems with learning and thinking, which can interfere with academic achievement after successful cancer treatment.  Oncologists have been working to change their treatment approach when possible to reduce the cognitive aftereffects, but their primary goal is first to maintain the high cure rate.

Research study: can we counteract these cognitive aftereffects?

Very recently, an exciting new controlled study was published indicating that the neuroscience-based intervention, Fast ForWord, provides significant improvements in learning to read after chemotherapy and radiation therapy for a kind of brain tumor called meduloblastoma. Ping Zou at St. Jude Research Hospital and his colleagues investigated whether Fast ForWord could prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment.

They studied two groups of school-aged children who either used Fast ForWord during their cancer treatment or a standard-of-care without the Fast ForWord intervention. Then, about 2 and one-half to three years after successful completion of chemo and radiation therapy for this type of brain tumor, the survivors received functional measures of brain function as well as a series of educational tests. A control group of 21 typically developing children with no history of cancer were included for comparison. The education tests included assessment of phonological skills (known to be a critical component of reading skill) and a variety of reading measures.  Their brain function was evaluated by using functional brain imaging (fMRI).

The results

During the time of the brain imaging, the researchers found that the tests of phonological skills were significantly higher among the cancer survivors who had received the Fast ForWord reading intervention during their cancer treatment, than among those who received standard-of-care. Even more important, the measures of functional brain activation across those brain areas recognized as important for reading showed a trend towards normalization among the children who received the Fast ForWord intervention.  This led the authors to conclude that the results of the study provide evidence for the long-term value of this type of reading intervention in children after surviving a serious form of brain cancer.

A diagnosis of cancer in a child is frightening and overwhelming, but fortunately the cure rate of many childhood cancers is now very high. With the high cure rates, doctors now recognize that these very effective cancer therapies may have long term aftereffects on learning and thinking. However, the best news is that there are interventions, such as the Fast ForWord programs, specifically designed by neuroscientists to normalize brain functions for learning that can prevent and/or remediate some of these learning problems.  

References:

Dietrich, J.Monje, M., Wefel, J. and Meyers, C. Clinical Patterns and Biological Correlates of Cognitive Dysfunction Associated with Cancer Therapy. The Oncologist. 2008;13:1285–1295

Mukherjee, S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Scribner; 2010

Mulhern, R. and Palmer, S. Neurocognitive late effects in pediatric cancer. Current Problems in Cancer. July–August 2003, Pages 177–197

Zou, P et al. (2015) Functional MRI in medulloblastoma survivors supports prophylactic reading intervention during tumor treatment. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 2015. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11682-015-9390-8. Accessed July 27, 2015.

 

Path Out of Poverty? Education Plus Neuroscience

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Key PointsNeurological implications of poverty on kids

  • Children raised in poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words at home
  • Income level negatively impacts cognitive functions
  • There are links between family income and memory and attention
  • Poverty is associated with chronic stress which can have a toxic effect on brain architecture
  • Computer games designed to target the skills that are impacted can turn around some effects of poverty

How family income impacts children neurologically

Poverty impairs the brain’s ability to develop and learn. Perhaps as toxic as drugs and alcohol to a young child’s brain, poverty not only affects the development of cognitive skills in young children, but it also changes the way the brain tissue itself matures during the critical brain “set up” period during early childhood.  We have known for decades, since Hart and Risley’s seminal research published in 1995, that children who come from homes of poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words in the home environment by the time they enter school than children who are raised in homes where the parents are professionals. Neuroscientists have recognized that human brain maturation is experience-dependent and one of the most important times for experience to mold the brain is from early childhood through the elementary school years.  It goes without saying that the less language a child is exposed to the fewer opportunities the brain has to develop language skills. But language function in the brain is not the only casualty of poverty; there are many other cognitive skills that are affected by low socioeconomic status.

Kimberly Noble, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University Teacher’s College, has been studying the effects of poverty on many aspects of cognitive development and brain structure for over a decade. As early as 2005, with M. Frank Norman and Martha Farah, she published research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and specific cognitive functions. Her findings show that children who come from homes of poverty have limitations in a range of cognitive skills, including the following:

  • Long and short term (working) memory
  • Visual and spatial skills
  • Executive functions like self-control
  • Ability to learn from reward

What is the link between brain development and household income?

More recently, Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Sowell, Professor of Pediatrics at The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, have found compelling links between family income and brain structure as well, especially affecting those areas of the brain important for memory and attention, regions essential for academic success. In a recent article in the journal Nature Neuroscience they reported that increases in both parental education and family income were associated with increases in the surface area of numerous brain regions, including those implicated in language and executive functions. Family income, however, appeared to have a stronger positive relationship with brain surface area than parental education.

What causes the correlation between poverty and brain development?

The reasons for the effect of poverty on brain development are complex. Elizabeth Sowell has asserted that family income is linked to factors such as nutrition, health care, schools, play areas and, sometimes, air quality, all of which can affect brain development. Others, like Jack Shonkoff and Pat Levitt of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard, have emphasized the role of stress in brain development.   Stress is associated with the release of the hormone cortisol which, in the short term, activates the body to respond to problematic situations.  With chronic stress, however, the authors review research which indicates the sustained cortisol can have a toxic effect on brain architecture.  

How can educators help reverse these effects?

As educators, the new research begs the question, “Are children raised in poverty doomed to educational struggle, no matter how well we teach?”  The answer, fortunately, is that neuroscience has not only clarified the problems caused by poverty but provides solutions as well.  In a recently published report titled “Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty”, Dr. Beth Babcock, CEO of Crittenden Women’s Union, argues that because those areas of the brain affected by the adverse experiences of poverty and trauma remain plastic well into adulthood, neuroscience research offers promise for coaching and other methodologies that can strengthen and improve brain development and function.  In her report, Dr. Babcock advocates, in part, for the use of "computer games” designed to, “improve memory, focus and attention, impulse control, organization, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills [that] are now widely available and beginning to create positive outcomes” (page 13).

The Fast ForWord programs, designed by neuroscientists at UCSF and Rutgers and tested for over a decade in many school districts with high poverty rates around the nation, have been repeatedly shown to increase academic performance in school districts with high levels of poverty. Read about the inspiring results at Highland View Elementary School, Hattie Watts Elementary School, and J.S. Aucoin Elementary School.

The beginning levels of the Fast ForWord programs (Fast ForWord Language  and Fast ForWord Literacy) target attention, memory, processing and sequencing skills – core cognitive skills essential for learning.  The later level programs (Fast ForWord Reading Levels 1-5) add specific technological instruction in reading comprehension, spelling, phonological awareness,  and decoding while also building in components to continue to build attention and memory skills.  

Research-proven: increased reading skills & neurological changes

Neuroscience imaging research  conducted at Stanford and replicated at Harvard with students who exhibited reading disabilities and used the Fast ForWord programs for six weeks indicated not only significant improvements in reading skills on standardized testing, but also neurological changes in areas of the brain critical to reading success.

The Reading Assistant programs, designed to improve oral reading fluency, incorporate speech recognition software to provide students with a one-on-one patient reading tutor/coach. Especially effective for students of poverty who may have little opportunity to read independently to an adult at home, Reading Assistant first provides a fluent oral reading model of every grade appropriate passage to be read, then, while the student reads aloud into the computer, the program corrects the student’s oral reading errors as they occur in real time. 

Summary: education is the key!

Poverty is toxic to the developing human brain and thereby endangers academic success. Education offers the key to a path out of poverty.  However, increasing class sizes and limitations on teachers’ time to individualize instruction, especially in school districts with high poverty rates, limit the ability of teachers to be as effective as they might if they could work with students individually. Furthermore, even the best curriculum does not include courses to improve attention, memory or other underlying cognitive functions compromised by lives of poverty. Neuroscience now offers not only an explanation of the problem but low cost solutions that can change the brains of all students to enable learning so that teachers can then do what they do best: teach!

References: 

Babcock, E. (2014) Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty. Crittenton Women’s Union Report

Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Noble, K., Norman, M.F., Farrah, M (2005) Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children. Developmental Science 8:1, pages 74-77.

Noble, K. et al. (2015) Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience. Published online 30 March

Shonkoff, F., Levitt, P., Bunge,s. et. al. (2014) Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. National Scientific Council On The Developing Child, January.

 

Parent Checklist: Is My Child At-Risk for Learning Issues?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Collins


parent checklistWe developed the following parent checklist to learn what concerns parents see in their children and to help them decide if their child is in need of help. Choose one answer for each question and indicate how often the behavior is exhibited in your child’s daily life with the following options: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Always.

  • Misunderstands what you say
  • Needs instructions repeated
  • Misunderstands jokes
  • Has difficulty understanding long sentences
  • Needs questions repeated
  • Has difficulty retelling a story in the right order
  • Cannot finish long sentences
  • Has trouble saying the same thing in a different way (rephrasing)
  • Has trouble finding the right word
  • Pronounces common words incorrectly
  • Gets confused in noisy places
  • Has difficulty engaging in conversation with others
  • Has behavior problems
  • Lacks self-confidence
  • Avoids group activities
  • Has trouble paying attention
  • Has trouble sounding out words
  • Has trouble reading
  • Has trouble spelling
  • Cannot tell you about the events of his/her school day

If you answered Sometimes, Often or Always to several of these, your child may be at-risk for a language-based learning disability and will likely require intervention to prevent these issues from affecting him/her academically in the future.   Why are we posting this now? Because summer is one of the best times to tackle these issues.

We hear from countless parents like you who are looking for help for their bright child who struggles with reading, writing, attention, or other issues. You’re in the right place. We can help you help your child this summer.  

Related Reading:

Preventing Summer Brain Drain with Dr. Martha S. Burns

What’s on Your Kids’ Summer Reading List?

 

Can Auditory Training in Babies Impact Speech and Language Development?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Monitoring a baby’s speech and language patterns can yield important insights about the child’s possible developmental trajectory. Although some children simply acquire speech more slowly than others, delayed speech or atypical development of verbal skills may be signs of learning disabilities, hearing problems, language impairment, auditory processing problems or autism. There is new research that suggests that very early interventions can boost a baby’s auditory system, in the hopes that this will lead to accelerated speech and language development.

Can We Intervene? New Insights Into Language Development in Infants

Speech and language is an incredibly complicated process that requires us to distinguish auditory patterns only a few milliseconds in length. This allows us to understand individual speech sounds (e.g., “bay,” “bee”) and put them together into more complicated words (“baby”).  Very early on, an infant makes brain maps of the speech sounds of his/her language. These maps make it easier to piece sounds together to understand spoken language in a fast, effortless way.

In infants, early exposure to certain sounds seems to help their brains to more effectively process auditory information. That is, hearing certain sounds may change brain pathways, making an “acoustic map” for the building blocks of speech. A recent study led by April Benasich, a researcher at Rutgers University, sought to find whether early intervention could improve this acoustic mapping ability.

During the study, 4-month-old babies were presented with tones while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which records electrical activity from different brain regions. The babies were divided into two groups: an “active engagement” group that was rewarded for successfully discriminating between two sounds, and a “passive engagement” group that heard the same sounds but did not receive a reward. The researchers hypothesized that active engagement would encourage babies to pay attention to important sounds in the environment.

All of the babies received six weeks of active or passive auditory training. The parents were asked to bring them back at 7 months of age to see whether the babies who received active training had more well-developed acoustic maps. They found that from 4 to 7 months of age, all of the babies showed better acoustic processing. However, those in the active engagement condition got an additional boost. These babies were faster and more accurate at detecting sound differences. Additionally, they showed differences in brain waves associated with acoustic maps.

Implications of the Research

This research suggests that very early interventions may significantly change the brain patterns and acoustic maps of developing infants. This is crucial, because early sound discrimination lays the foundation for speech and language development throughout childhood.  Dr. Benasich has not investigated whether the active engagement intervention continues to boost sound discrimination in children over 7 months of age. However, other scientific evidence suggests that children who go on to develop reading disabilities, language impairments or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may exhibit early deficits in auditory abilities. Thus, it is possible that early interventions that boost auditory processing may support speech and language development and in turn, prevent the onset of some learning problems. More research is needed to develop the links between early auditory interventions and later academic outcomes.

Further Reading:

Plasticity in Developing Brain:  Active Auditory Exposure Impacts Prelinguistic Acoustic Mapping

Study Shows Benefits of Building Baby's Language Skills Early

Related Reading:

Overcoming Language and Reading Problems:  The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Language-Based Learning Disabilities and Auditory Processing Disorders

When Test Scores Go Up, Do Cognitive Skills Increase?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

test scores and cognitive skillsThe amount of attention schools devote to improving standardized test scores is controversial. Mandated or not, there is disagreement about what is actually being measured, and how much what is being measured matters. Now, a study by John Gabrieli at MIT, published in the journal Psychological Science, is shedding some light on what’s not being measured. The results are food for thought.

Gabrieli and his team set out to discover whether increased test scores were associated with improved fluid intelligence, which can be measured in terms of cognitive skills such as working memory, processing rate, and the ability to reason abstractly. Standardized tests, on the other hand, measure crystallized intelligence, students’ ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have been taught.

The researchers approached the question by comparing results from schools with test score increases on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to schools without increases. In comparing 1,400 students, they found that fluid intelligence showed no correspondence with the school attended. Put another way, students’ fluid intelligence did not increase along with test scores.

Increased test scores are a measure of success, to be sure. Students from the schools with higher test scores were more apt to graduate and go to college. But what then? Do these students complete college in higher numbers than their peers with similar cognitive abilities and lower test scores? Do they have what it takes to perform well at work and to navigate the increasing complexity of our world? We don’t have answers yet, but researchers are turning their attention to these questions to find out.

In the meantime, critics of standardized testing question whether abilities and qualities not measured by these tests – such as solving novel problems, a cognitive skill  – are likely to be as, or more, important in the long run. Some researchers, including Gabrieli, would like to see mainstream educators jump on the fluid intelligence bandwagon. “Schools can improve crystallized abilities, and now it might be a priority to see if there are some methods for enhancing the fluid ones as well,” he says.

A growing number of schools have already begun to focus on building students’ cognitive skills with the Fast ForWord online intervention program. Fast ForWord is scientifically proven to develop cognitive skills like working memory, attention, and processing rate as well as reading and language skills. Students who use Fast ForWord typically boost their academic performance significantly and also become more confident learners.

As important as it is to build crystallized intelligence, developing both kinds of intelligence should be a priority for educators. When students are equipped not only to apply knowledge and skills to familiar problems, but also to understand and reason about novel situations, that’s a real-world advantage with lasting value. What better way to equip students for independent lives and adult responsibilities?

Related reading:

Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

 

 

Fast ForWord® at Home Scholarship

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 08:00
  • Joanne Gouaux

Fast ForWord at Home ScholarshipLike walking, reading is a major life activity. When your child struggles to read, it feels like running on an uphill treadmill. It is exhausting and overwhelming, with no finish line in sight. Lessons keep moving at school as the days, weeks, and months pass. Despite extending their best effort, struggling readers make more mistakes and have to work longer and harder than an average learner their age.

My son showed signs of difficulty with reading and writing in kindergarten. By the end of 1st grade, things were not improving and with the best of intentions, the school suggested that maybe all he needed was more time. That's when I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but when I learned about Fast ForWord, it made sense. It was unlike anything we had tried before, and my son embraced the idea of working the exercises on a computer. Double win!

I know many families are facing similar challenges and frustrations. I invite you to take action and apply for the first ever Fast ForWord at Home Scholarship, provided by BrainPro.

It's never too late to explore options at any stage of life, especially in childhood. What may have started as a little trouble can quickly pile up and influence school performance, learning, daily activities, and relationships. With hard work, consistent effort, and the right help, your child can become an independent reader.

Related reading:

Debunking Anecdotes – One Parent’s Journey Through a Maze of Misconceptions About Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, and the Road to College: Maria’s Story

 

 

10 Questions to Ask Your Child’s Teacher This Year (Don’t Forget Cognitive Skills!)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 17:15
  • Norene Wiesen

It’s back to school…again! Your child is getting to know a new teacher and facing a host of new expectations. How can you be sure that you are prepared to help your child navigate the school year and get the most out of every day at school? It helps if you know what questions to ask. Here’s a list you can use as a starting point for talking with your child’s teacher.

Parent Night Questions

Many teachers provide a Parent Night handout or a website with detailed information about classroom expectations or procedures. See what your child’s teacher has prepared for you, and if it doesn’t answer the following questions, be sure to ask them yourself.

  1. Student Feedback & Support - How do you like to provide feedback to students? Are there any interventions to help children who need a little extra attention? When are you available if my child needs extra help?
  2. Home Support - How can I support you, as a parent, so that my child gets the most out of this school year?

Conference (or “As-Needed”) Questions

  1. Reading – When working in a small group with my student in reading, what is an area of strength or weakness that you notice? How is my child’s decoding? Fluency? Comprehension? Vocabulary?
  2. Writing – What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in writing?
  3. Math - What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in math?
  4. Cognitive Skills – How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:
    1. Memory: How well does my child learn and remember new information? Does he or she require more or less support than peers? How easily is information retained?
    2. Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?
    3. Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading: decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring. In math: during computation (is it labored or slow?) or retrieval of simple number facts. In writing: able to generate coherent ideas without a lot of support and begin to put them into words (orally or on paper, depending on grade).
    4. Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?
  5. Expression of Thoughts & Language Skills – How often do students have an opportunity to share their thoughts with the class (i.e., “think out loud”)? What do you notice when my child participates (or not)?
  6. Motivation – What does my child find motivating? What can I do to support this?
  7. Social Skills – How does my child do without direct supervision? How does my child handle conflict with other students? What one thing could my child do to improve his or her social skills?
  8. State Testing & Advancement – Do you have any concerns about my child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests? Or his or her advancement to the next grade?

If you have concerns about your child’s cognitive skills or academic performance, don’t wait until conference day to let the teacher know. Use the teacher’s preferred method of communication to request a special meeting. For any area where extra help might be needed, or even if your child has reached proficiency, be sure to ask, “What can I do to support my child at home?” And then really do it. That school-home connection can make a huge difference in student achievement. Here’s to a great school year!

Related reading:

The Parent Trap: Getting Your Struggling Learner to Do Homework Independently

Instilling a Love of Reading: What Every Teacher and Parent Should Know

 

5 Things You Might Not Know About ELLs

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

English Language Learners ELLs

It’s no secret that the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States is booming. By 2025, nearly one out of every four public school studentsis expected to be an English learner. And ELL populations are soaring in places where they were historically lower – Southern states like North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia have all seen growth rates topping 200% in recent years.

So…how much do you know about English learners? Peruse these 5 facts and find out:

1. More than half of today’s ELLs were born in the U.S.

According to a 2008 NEA policy brief, 76% of the ELLs in elementary schools and 56% of the ELLs in secondary schools are American-born. Being born in the U.S. gives these learners some advantages over first-generation immigrants – a big one being easier acculturation. But the advantages of being second-generation are not enough. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress only 29% of ELLs scored at or above the “basic” level in reading, compared with 75% of non-ELLs. What’s more, the academic performance levels of ELLs are significantly below those of their peers in nearly every measure of achievement.

2. ELLs are an extremely diverse group.

Although most speak Spanish, ELLs represent numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, six of the top ten languages spoken by ELLs are notbased on the Latin alphabet: Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Russian and Miao/Hmong!

3. The ELL achievement gap is complex and difficult to measure.

Unlike other subgroups specified in No Child Left Behind (e.g., economically disadvantaged or racial groups), a primary goal for ELLs is to transition out of ELL status by demonstrating English proficiency. Students who reach proficiency more quickly get reclassified, which skews performance statistics downward for learners who retain ELL status past third or fourth grade. In addition, not all states agree about which students qualify as ELLs, although there are efforts currently underway to establish a common set of criteria for federal funding purposes.

4. ELLs drop out at a higher rate than any other student population.

The longer ELLs remain classified as English learners, the more likely they are to abandon school. English learners who drop out are much more likely to end up unemployed, and even those who are able to find a job should expect relatively low earnings over their lifetimes – as much as $200,000 lessthan their peers who complete high school and $1 million lessthan those who graduate from college. Dropouts are more likely to become teenage parents, live in poverty, struggle with addiction, commit suicide and commit crimes that land them in prison. The cost to society is high – taxpayers foot the bill of up to $350 billion in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs. 

5. Building skills in a student’s home language facilitates English acquisition.

A growing body of evidence shows that some key language skills (e.g., phonemic awareness) generalize to other languages – so when students make progress in their first language, their English improves, too. Studies also show that bilingual learners have a cognitive advantageover monolingual learners. In addition, research supports dual-language instruction as a highly effective model for helping both ELLs and native English-speakers become biliterate high achievers. Dual language programs are especially recommended at the preschool level to prepare ELLs for mainstream kindergarten programs.

How to Help

The challenge of educating the nation’s English learners is a huge one – and it’s growing. But there are ways to make a difference:

Above all, we must pay attention to the burgeoning population of ELLs, understand their needs, and implement effective strategies for helping them meet or exceed proficiency measures, graduate from high school, and continue on to college. We can’t continue to fail them – the stakes for all of us are much too high.

References:

Center for Great Public Schools. (2008). English Language Learners Face Unique Challenges.Retrieved from: http://www.nea.org/home/32409.htm

Migration Policy Institute. (2010). Top Languages Spoken by English Language Learners Nationally and by State. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/top-languages-spoken-english-language-learners-nationally-and-state

National Education Association, (n.d.). A New Look at America's English Language Learners, Retrieved from: http://www.nea.org/home/29160.htm

Reynolds, C.W. (2011). The Influence of Dual Language Education Upon the Development of English Reading Skills of Kindergarten Through Grade Two Students, Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Retrieved from: http://scholarship.shu.edu/dissertations

Sanchez, C. & Wertheimer, L. (2011). School Dropout Rates Add to Fiscal Burden.Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/24/138653393/school-dropout-rates-adds-to-fiscal-burden

Related reading:

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

68% of Students Improve MEPA Proficiency Significantly after Fast ForWord

 

The Benefits of Downtime: Why Learners’ Brains Need a Break

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Downtime A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.

The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.

Going Offline

The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.

Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.

The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.

Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.

The Productive Faces of Idleness

SLEEP

Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.

Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.

Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.

AWAKE, DOING NOTHING

Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.

Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.

Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.

There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.

Some schools are taking note and introducing meditation into the classroom.Getting the buy-in needed to launch a meditation program takes work, but benefits can be substantial.

MUNDANE ACTIVITY

It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.

Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.

Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.

Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.

Standing Up for Downtime

With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.

Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?

References:

2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from  http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

Braun, D. (2009, August 6). Why do we Sleep? Scientists are Still Trying to Find Out. Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/26/why_we_sleep_is_a_mystery/

Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013).  Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientificamerican.com.Retrieved November 30, 2013, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime

Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education, 6738, 534-536. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93

Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10

Related reading:

Sleep: An Essential Ingredient for Memory Function

Stress and The Human Brain

 

 

Child Development Versus Standards-Driven Learning: Who Wins?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Child development versus standards driven learning

There’s a tug of war going on in American schools, a tension between learners’ developmental needs and the academic rigor required to meet challenging educational standards. In the classroom, where standardized assessments are the driving force of the day, the developmental realities of learners are often overlooked and shortchanged—and it’s something we ought to be talking about.

Signs of a Struggle

My co-worker’s son, Eli, is a case in point. As a kindergartener, he was expected to sit cross-legged with his hands in his lap on an 18” x 18” carpet square for 30-40 minutes of circle time each morning—something he was often unable to do. His teacher regularly reported home that Eli needed to improve in his ability to sit still, and the enthusiasm he had for school in September quickly waned.

His mother discussed the situation with her child’s pediatrician, who replied that Eli’s difficulty sitting still was a developmental stage that was perfectly normal for a five-year-old boy. The doctor also noted that Eli was expending so much energy trying to sit still that he was probably not able to attend to what he was supposed to be learning.

Eli’s parents transferred him to a different school the following year where he was assigned a teacher who designed her learners’ activities with their developmental needs in mind. For example, she gave her socially focused first-graders many opportunities to work with other learners in pairs or groups. Eli’s motivation skyrocketed, and in addition to performing at the top of his class academically, he began describing himself as a person who liked to be challenged.

Meeting Learners Where They Are

With so much to accomplish each year, and so little time, it’s no surprise that considerations around learners’ developmental stages often take a back seat to the focus on academic rigor. But as Eli and his parents learned, a standards-based curriculum isn’t likely to be effective if students are developmentally unable to attend to the material as it’s presented.

Some educators are calling for a renewed interest in child developmentand a move toward creating more developmentally appropriate classrooms for young learners. What might classrooms look like if developmental considerations were given greater weight? Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Less sitting and more movement for five-year-olds
  • Downplaying competition when six-year-olds play learning games
  • Adequate time for seven-year-olds to complete tasks to their high standards
  • Forums for talkative eight-year-olds to explain things and try out their burgeoning vocabularies
  • Nine-year-olds understand the relevance of their assignments
  • Ten-year-olds exercise their burgeoning memorization and organization abilities
  • Written communication with eleven-year-olds creates a sense of distance that supports strong continuing relationships with adults
  • More autonomy and decision-making opportunities for middle school learners
  • Programs or activities that help adolescents adjust to their rapidly changing bodies without losing academic focus
  • Water, snacks, and exercise opportunities more readily available to learners of all ages

The Original Common Core

Long before we had the Common Core Standards, we understood that there are developmental stages that children step through as they move toward adulthood. Although children progress through them at different rates and there can be considerable overlap between stages, the stages are predictable for most children.

Learners bring their entire developmental selves to school each day, not just the cognitive components that are reflected in their standardized test scores. Classrooms that don’t take standards anddevelopmental considerations into account aren’t likely to move students as far ahead as they need to go to stay on track.

Educators may find that aligning communication styles and classroom activities with their learners’ developmental stages results in less time spent on discipline and more time on task. Loosening the reins a little by adapting to learners can support the more “serious” work of building the cognitive skillsthat matter so much in meeting today’s standards.

References:

Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14.Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Eccles, J.S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14 The Future of Children, 9(2), 30-44.

Related reading:

How to Support Social Development in Young Children

Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day

 

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