Nearly 20 Years Later, What Have We Learned From Hart and Risley?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Early language experienceAn Interview with Steven L. Miller, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven L. Miller is a research neuropsychologist with expertise in the assessment and treatment of developmental language and reading impairments, and a co-founder of Scientific Learning. He has extensive experience in organizing clinical studies and conducting longitudinal studies of children and adults with such disabilities.

I chatted with Dr. Miller recently by phone about the famous 1995 language study by Hart and Risley to find out what we’ve learned since then, and why so many learners in our schools are still struggling.

SL: In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of a study finding that 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their agemates from professional families. This difference has been called the “30-Million-Word Gap” and “The Great Catastrophe.” Why has this study been so influential in education circles?

SM: The primary reason why the work has been so impactful is that it helped to quantify the challenge that educational systems face when children enter school with vast differences in educational readiness. This work demonstrates so clearly the enormous variation that kids present when they come to our public education system, and that traditional intervention approaches in many cases do not provide adequate advancement for students to “catch-up.”

So many people think children come to school at 4 ½ - 5 ½ years of age as blank slates. This work really points out the fact that there’s a lot of learning and experience that has gone on. And in the case of the Hart and Risley study, some students are millions and millions of words behind in experience when they enter the classroom.

SL: Why does this matter? What are the implications?

SM: Our national Reading First campaign has really dealt with the idea that there are critical subcomponents of reading instruction - that the research has proved are necessary, but not sufficient – for students to become good readers. And one of the best pre-school predictors of who’s going to be a good third-grade reader is their vocabulary development.

Adding to the Hart and Risley findings is research from NICHD funded research programs showing that kindergarten assessments can accurately predict greater than 90% of struggling 3rd grade readers using their kindergarten assessment performance.  As such we can now accurately predict who’s at risk for becoming a struggling 3rd grade reader.   This work led to the tiered intervention models that are positively changing student outcomes in schools across the country

So the question was, do we need different instructional paths for them? Do we expect them to develop academic skills at the same rate despite these early differences?  These aren’t biological restrictions in the students. This isn’t about their ability or potential to learn. This isn’t about whether they can learn to read, or become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or scientists. The answer to that is, yes, they can, but at the same time, if you’re not a good reader by third grade, there’s a high likelihood that you will not graduate high school on time, or possibly at all.  This is not a biological limitation but a consequence of the fact that a lot of academic learning occurs during independent reading after 3rd grade.  Reading is critical because if you can’t read you fall further and further behind.  As we try to maximize the learning that occurs each day in school the consequences of falling behind can be devastating.  We see this is one of the simplest yet strongest findings in public education.  Student attendance predicts learning, missing school or falling behind at school makes catching up difficult because each day we have new learning goals being achieved.  This is why early learning and preschool program effectiveness is so critical to later academic success.

SL: It’s not just the gap in vocabulary size at age four that puts the children from lower-income families at risk, according to Hart and Risley. The gap actually increases over time even after the children are in school. Is the learning trajectory set in early childhood, or do differences in experience continue to widen the gap year after year?

SM: Great question. I believe the evidence is clear that the older students get, the smaller the impact the parents’ vocabulary plays in language development compared to other experiences (e.g., reading). However, children with lower vocabulary skills are often poor readers so they continue to fall further and further behind in academic language and cognitive skills. 

Language, and later reading experience, are two of the largest contributors to brain plasticity in the developing brain.  This is also a large contributor to the way we build our cognitive skills as well as our brain’s reward systems that contribute to our communication patterns. The most interesting part for me, if I’m a teacher, isn’t that I have to simplify my language use to reach students in my class, which is true for every teacher that works with first graders – they don’t talk like a 30-year-old, they talk in a way that uses simpler language structures.  Teachers present and provide language to students as a means of reinforcement and social support within the classroom.  For many impoverished students language was used more often to communicate negation, disapproval or punishment.

The data from the Hart and Risley study was that the average child from a professional family hears six times the number of encouragements for using language for every one discouragement or prohibition. This is critical. If there’s one thing, it’s this idea about using language to encourage vs. discourage further interaction and language use by the student. Saying “no,” saying “be quiet,” saying “knock it off,” those are ways to discourage and we want to use them for very important things as parents – don’t kick, don’t bite, don’t throw.

But when a child asks a question like, what do I use this for, professional families are using words of encouragement. What would we use that for? Why do you want that? Asking the child things that encourage more talking. Whereas in the middle class families, it’s two encouragements to every one discouragement. In families in economic distress (e.g., receiving welfare), we have almost a one encouragement to every two discouragements ratio. You really have to say to people, think about that for a moment. For that child, language is a way to be punished twice as often as it is to receive positive reinforcement or praise.

It’s not just that there’s a 30-million-word difference between us, but that I had language used twice as often to put me down, to make me feel like less, to make me not want to talk to you, and now I’m going to enter a classroom where the teacher primarily uses language as a way for communication, for grading me, for teaching me.

Then this child comes into a classroom and you think to yourself as a teacher, I know, I’m going to work with this child more, I’m going to ask them to wait a few minutes after class. I want to talk to them. Well that’s like saying, come up here I want to talk to you, and the child averts their gaze, drops their head, maybe shrugs their shoulder, walks up and is completely trying to avoid the oncoming punishment because that’s what talking is to them.

The numbers, if we estimate the frequency over years, are quite significant.  Students received 57,000 – 60,000 discouragements before they came to school, delivered by language. So by 60,000 times, my experience is that talking is not a good experience. 

SL: Are there studies about how much encouragement is required after school starts to counteract this?

SM: Yes. Using language – establishing a safe communication zone, which is what so many great teachers do – has that child eventually saying, wow, when I come to this classroom I love it here. I get to talk, to share my ideas, and nobody puts me down.  We learn to disagree in respectful ways.  Many teachers are already sensitive to this and their classrooms reflect a positive language environment.

Many, many teachers will say, that explains why these kids always seek me out two or three years later to talk to me. They don’t have a lot of other adults in their life where language is used in a positive way. How do they explore the world in a way that they might get a reward or somebody might say to them, well, tell me more about that, why do you want to do that? Who’s going to explore that with them? They go find that first, second, or third grade teacher and they want to hang out after school because they’re looking for that great, positive feeling. Why? Because they may not have it in other places in their world. The challenge is, how does language as the means and the media for safe communication become school-wide vs. teacher specific?

It’s extra work for the teacher to say to the other students in the class, there’s no bad idea, there’s no bad conversation, nobody in here asks a bad question – and we all know the teachers that say that. But they also have to enforce it. They have to make sure that kids don’t make fun of other kids.

I’m sure you’re aware from speakers that talk about the emotional elements of not being a good reader that reading out loud for them is a horror in their life. They’ll do anything not to expose that they’re not doing that well in the classroom. It’s a really big task for a teacher. Many teachers look at the Hart and Risley data and think about the 30-million-word gap, but I have to point their attention to the fact that the thing that they’re so gifted at – the tool that they love, which is language – is not really the tool of kindness for most of these kids and establishing that is probably the hardest task that they have.

SL: What are some possible solutions? How can the gap be reduced in early childhood and beyond? And whose job is it?

SM: Whose job is it? It’s going to be everybody’s job because it really is about creating more language tolerance and good language models for kids. However, I don’t think we’re going to mathematically catch them up by trying to find a way to sneak in the three years they’re missing, so to speak. I think the real solution – and I’m biased here – is that this is an area where technology can help.

This is an area where technology can give you experience with language, let you manipulate language, play it back for you in a safe, positive environment. In developing software, we want to have a six affirmation per one discouragement ratio. We want kids to be right the vast majority of the time. We want to make the content adaptive and we want the technology to interact in language with that child as much as that student can gobble up and tolerate. With products like Reading Assistant and Fast ForWord, we had an internal obsession with trying to get more word experiences – and the right word experiences – to kids per unit time than a lot of other software developers.

I also remind people that even in their own work environments – and often school districts will laugh when I tell them – with caller ID you can see that affirmation phone call versus that discouragement phone call coming in. How often do you answer the discouragement line? You let it go to voice mail, right?  And you say, I’ll take care of that later. That should help them understand that for these kids, that is their exposure before they come to school. Twice as many discouragements for an encouragement in a lower volume environment. And then I say to people, how many of you have a work environment where you’re encouraging to your colleagues two to six times more often than you’re discouraging? And it’s the same brain mechanisms.

This really isn’t about genetics or about poverty in the formal sense. This is about a covariant element with poverty. For example, if I’m not making an income that allows me to sustain myself, I might have two or three jobs. I’m probably physically exhausted. I’m not eating right. I’m not sleeping right. These are all normal things that we expect people to do when they’re not generating adequate income to support their family. Do we really become reflective? Do we really ask those W, H questions [who, what, when, where, why, how] when somebody asks us? We’re going to be short and abrupt. We’re going to just make a determination and say, did you do something wrong today? We deal with those basic safety issues and the language encouragement isn’t there.

I’m very encouraged by the research that Craig Ramey at Virginia Tech and others have done where they’ve shown that just educating young moms – even young pregnant moms – about what it means to communicate with their child results in an increase in vocabulary development for the mom, and in vocabulary development for their baby. And when they’ve actually taken brain scans of the babies, these babies when they’re older look more like babies from another income level. They didn’t change the income of the family. They just basically said, this is how important language is. You want your baby to develop as much as they possibly can, and this is what language can do.

SL: Who should educate the pregnant mother? Should the doctor play a role?

SM: Great questions and we don’t have all the answers. If you remember, a couple of years ago in Georgia they used to give new moms a little pack of information from the governor. So people have taken the research, including the Hart and Risley data, and they have tried to make an impact. And the research from Craig and Sharon Ramey and their colleagues have shown that effective early childhood intervention studies can change the learning and economic outcomes for at-risk populations.  In some communities, the best conduit for educating the community will be a combination of the school district as well as talking to the pastors and the ministers who are going to be talking to their congregations.

We forget that some of the most effective social programs are the ones that support daycare for children. Again, not because we think moms and dads don’t know the language or don’t know the words. It’s really about the idea of providing a fun and supportive opportunity for communication using the best language you have.

You don’t have to know a lot of English. You can speak in whatever language you want to speak.  It’s about developing those cognitive skills. The more we talk, the longer the memory span becomes. The more we talk, the better our attention gets. So we have better memory, better attentional skills, and better processing skills with language. These are the skills, if you’re not practicing them, which are not so good when you show up at school. A teacher who has to work with 20+ students in kindergarten and first grade doesn’t always have an opportunity to go over and spend more time with the kids who, to be honest, are a year or more behind when they start.

SL: What’s the most important takeaway from the Hart and Risley study in your view?

SM: The most important thing is that this gap exists when kids show up at school. Number two is that, from a practical standpoint, we’re not going to fix it by supplementing education trying to recreate the missing vocabulary development. In other words, if the 30 million words equates to x number of hours of experience, we’re not going to catch the kids up because the higher oral language students won’t slow down. That’s what those rates of learning actually mean. Those kids that are ahead aren’t just ahead. They run faster in vocabulary and reading development.

SL: Are you saying that the achievement gap can’t be bridged?

SM: It can be bridged but you have to be more clever about how you’re going to present the information. Again, in my opinion, you’ve got to look at technology.  The kids aren’t just 30 million words behind. The rate at which they acquire and use words is also behind. So you have to look hard for ways to make them faster at acquiring vocabulary than normal. Otherwise they can’t catch up. The idea from Hart and Risley is there’s a hole in vocabulary development and usage, which has an impact on other cognitive and academic skills. But to fill that hole you have to be strategic.  You have to work harder and smarter.

SL: Do you think schools have absorbed that fact yet or are they still trying to solve the problem in the same way?

SM: They’re still trying to solve the problem in a very linear fashion. There are a lot of states that have recommendations. They’ll say, if the child is behind in reading, give them an extra 30 minutes a day. And there are two issues. First of all there’s an opportunity cost because something else is being pushed out of school. You’re already accepting lower performance in a different domain, so you’re going to read more at school if we just drop math or science, as an example. Something fell.

Number two is that you’re not changing the rate at which they acquire new information. So that 30 minutes is going to help – it’s better than nothing – but you’re probably not going to catch up under that model and that is why we have so few kids catch up. So again I’ll go back to my earlier statement: 92% of low-reading third-graders can be predicted in kindergarten. In the fall of kindergarten – 92% of them.  So are we only helping 8% or is that just error in our prediction?

What we’re doing is not a matter of effort. The incorrect answer is teachers need to work harder. The incorrect answer is districts need to work harder. The correct answer is we need to work smarter.

SL: Can you say more about how technology works smarter?

SM: Because we can create learning experiences, driven by the student, that exceed what can happen in a normal classroom or small group environment. In other words, think about five kids at different computers each receiving differentiated individualized instruction.

SL: It’s an individualized learning approach…

SM: …over a short duration that can work systematically on being faster learners, not just providing them with the experience. My comment about technology is really for public education systems.

The part that people misunderstand the most is that a lot of technology that’s presented in the first year to year-and-a-half of life actually predicts negative language growth, not positive, because you need those base skills. And so the best development for kids is really that interaction. You know after a year-and-a-half, two years of age, with adults, with other kids, then technology can play a role once they have those basic skills.

For parents, it’s not about putting a laptop in a crib and coming back two hours later. We want to make sure that people really understand that watching TV with your child and talking about what you’re watching, and letting them respond -- having that interaction the way you might use a book is exactly what you’re trying to do.

Further reading:

Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Hart and Risley)

The Social World of Children Learning to Talk (Hart and Risley)

The Read-Aloud Handbook (Jim Trelease)

Related reading:

As Classrooms Become More Diverse, How Do We Help All Students Grow?

Underachieving Students: Why They Struggle and How Educators Can Help

 

Happy Holidays from Scientific Learning Corporation!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski

Happy Thanksgiving from Scientific Learning Corporation!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski

 
 
 
 
 

 

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

 

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 17:15
  • Joanne Gouaux

Debunking anecdotes about learning disabilities"If you read to them, they will read." That statement sums up what I believed when my first child began babbling and pointing to objects in his favorite board books. Blissfully optimistic, I eagerly began reading to my child as soon as he could keep his eyes open long enough to stare at the pages of a book, long before he began speaking in sentences. That was, of course, prior to kindergarten, when the reality of learning to read gallantly collided with my pie-in-the-sky perspective of what many tout as the “magic of reading.”

Kindergarten and the enchantment of learning to read passed by in a flurry. It was not so much magical, as it was dumbfounding. Yes, we were astonished and amazed, but not in the way we had originally anticipated. It seemed the joke was on us.

The summer between kindergarten and first grade was the beginning of what felt like a carnival tour through unfamiliar side shows - weird rooms with strange lighting, specialists with long professional titles, and a seemingly endless line of shenanigans. It was disorienting. Our son led us through a maze of experiences that felt strikingly similar to the hallway of mirrors, with odd distorted reflections of ourselves and confusing passages that led to people who would look at us and smile without the slightest idea how to help. Embarking on a quest to help our child discover his path to reading was mind-bending.

Our oldest child is a laid-back, happy go-lucky character, who beats to his own drum and finds tremendous humor in ambushing the "seriousness" out of the most mundane routines.  He is curious above all else, imaginative, and enjoys playing the part of family clown, in the best sense of the role.  He is a practical joker with a sensitive awareness of others’ emotions. He lives to laugh, and loves to make people smile.  His younger brother is much more serious and socially reserved at the present stage.

Along with two beautiful children, their father and I also share another unique genetic gem - each of us has a parent who is dyslexic. Born a generation apart on opposite sides of the country, both my mother and his father experienced demeaning treatment as a result of their inability to learn to read fluently in their early school years.

Their father and I are the eldest children of parents who firmly believed in the philosophy of "no pain, no gain" and the necessity of hard work without short cuts. We both excelled at individual sports such as swimming and distance running - that is to say that we knew how to buckle down and push through difficulties and discomfort, viewing struggles and setbacks as acceptable, normal parts of life.

I was a "good student" who "worked hard" while my husband was described by his mother and elementary school teachers as "never working to his full potential."  This particular statement speaks more to a guiding fiction commonly held by teachers, and compounded by parental expectations, than it does about a child's true potential. It also sets the stage for a cleansing of misguided anecdotes that fuel the misunderstanding of learning disabilities.

Behind the heavy curtains of any storied carnival there is a place where the magician's tricks and illusions are unveiled. Tricks distract the audience into believing in the illusion that everything is exactly as it appears. Popular anecdotes are like tricks as they provide the illusion of control for well-meaning adults. In truth, most anecdotes are obstacles to early intervention and parental advocacy:

  • Practice makes perfect. Trying hard and failing despite honest attempts over and over again is painful and can be fruitless without the proper interventions and support system.
  • No pain, no gain. Demanding or telling a bright child who is struggling to read to "try harder" is counter-productive and causes intense anxiety and stress which undermines their self-concept, damages trust, and leads to unnecessary suffering by all.
  • Hard work always pays off. Having to work harder and longer than anyone else in your class is exhausting and humiliating, especially when it is not the most efficient way to learn.
  • He/She just needs more time. Children with learning disabilities only become independent learners when their underlying challenges are adequately addressed. Nothing will change without proper identification and support.

Our own child heard demeaning statements from a teacher who referred to him as smart, but lazy, and took away recess and free time as punishment for not completing writing assignments. Other teachers said he just needed more time to grow and suggested another year in the same grade.  Both our son and his grandparents were identified as dyslexic, but only with the help of an advocate.  Advocates are not limited to parents. Advocates can be teachers, family members or anyone with a meaningful connection to a child, or adult.  

Teachers and parents play a unique role in helping to identify learning disabilities. Identification requires a willingness on the part of both parties to objectively seek root causes of a child's difficulty and to work with the child to find strategies and solutions for their success. An analogy that captures the interdependence of this relationship is that of two people in a row boat: the teacher and the child, or the parent and the child. Each one has an oar and they each must row to move the boat forward. If only one person rows, the boat will go around in circles and go nowhere. Telling the child to row harder is equivalent to "try harder" and it only makes the boat go around in circles faster. We must respect the child's effort, celebrate their small successes, and encourage them to keep going while picking up our own oar and getting in a rhythm with the child's natural pace.

Children who receive help with their learning disabilities learn to successfully work smarter, not harder. In the long run, they can develop the ability to advocate for themselves. These are skills that last a lifetime. As parents, we have a unique opportunity to observe our child's struggle, and validate their experience by acknowledging their efforts, allowing them to trust their own instincts as well as trusting us.

If there is one message I wish to share with fellow parents, it is this -- do not allow well-intentioned anecdotes from our past, other parents, teachers, or administrators to belittle or dismiss your child's experiences, or to plant doubt in your own parental abilities. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. Children need additional help getting access to the right resources, but help exists, even if it is difficult to find at first. Children deserve a fair start in life, and someone to hold their hand through the carnival of unexpected oddities. With any luck, you may even come out of the "fun house" laughing at the ridiculous experience, all the while realizing that neither of you were ever broken in the first place, but rather a little lost, and in need of some light and map to navigate the road less traveled.

Joanne Gouaux discovered Fast ForWord after her 7-year-old son, Carter, was diagnosed with dyslexia. We will share Carter’s academic story in an upcoming post.

Related reading:

Girl Brains and Boy Brains: What Educators and Parents Need to Know
What Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby’s Developing Brain

 

Social Skills in the Digital Age: What’s Screen Time Got to Do With It?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

social skills and screen time Most of us who spend time with kids know that good social skills are a must for navigating life. Some child development experts report that children who spend excessive time in front of screens are not developing the social skills they need to effectively handle interpersonal relationships.

One reason is that they aren't getting the same practice in two-way conversation as children of previous generations; their time is given instead to engaging with a device that doesn’t reciprocate. That’s a problem, because kids need to learn how to initiate a conversation, listen and respond appropriately, and deal with the uncomfortable pauses and conflicts that sometimes arise when interacting with real people.

Children who depend heavily on devices may use them to avoid the discomforts of social interaction by, say, checking every few minutes for text messages or retreating into a video game while waiting for dinner to be served at a restaurant.

For some, the dependence has gone so far that pediatricians have coined a new term for it: “screen addiction.”

A Keystone Skill

Attributing life success to good social skills is nothing new. Nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie’s bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence Peopleoutlined a “self-improvement” plan based on social skills that are still considered highly relevant today. His advice included tips on how to:

  • Have a conversation
  • Communicate in a way that can influence a situation’s outcome
  • Show consideration for others
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Demonstrate leadership

Carnegie recognized that social skills are life skills – and so did his readers, who have purchased more than 15 million copies since the book was first published.

Today, educators are also recognizing the central importance of social skills. With the awareness that academic skills alone are not enough, many schools have begun introducing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs as a core component of the curriculum. And many parents, recognizing that their children could use some help, are welcoming and even requesting such programs.

The High Cost of Poor Social Skills

Parents and educators are right to be concerned. Underdeveloped social skills can keep kids out of the running for the kind of opportunities that move them ahead. Consequences of poor social skills include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social exclusion
  • Poor academic performance (indirectly)

Good social skills help children:

  • Develop positive relationships with parents, teachers, and peers
  • Show resilience during times of stress
  • Avoid social rejection
  • Take personal responsibility for a safe, positive school environment

When little kids are given devices to soothe them, or older children are allowed to retreat into the safety zone of texting, there’s a lot they miss out on. They don’t learn how to handle boredom. They don’t learn how to read other people’s subtle social signals. They don’t reach out to others as much for comfort or support – one of the ways that we build close connections and community.

The consequences are greatest for those who are most at risk. It’s the kids who are already uncomfortable interacting socially who are most likely to turn to screens as an avoidance mechanism, while children with strong social skills tend to use their devices to increase and further social connection.

Is All Screen Time Bad?

There doesn’t seem to be much question that kids are spending too much time on electronic devices. A 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that children 8 - 18 years of age are getting as much as 5 - 8 hours of dedicated screen time each day. But it turns out that screen time may not always be bad for social development.

There’s growing evidence that children who engage with different types of media develop 21 stcentury skills that connect them to the world and other people. Participating in virtual worlds and video conferencing with family and friends can benefit social skills and support play. Texting and instant messaging may also make it easier for teens to initiate offline friendships – despite the toll it takes on family time at the dinner table.

Management & Self-Regulation

In a fast-paced world where tech is here to stay, it’s up to parents and educators to teach and model some essential 21 stcentury skillsrelated to the use of screen time in everyday life:

  • An awareness that there are healthy and unhealthy types and amounts of screen time;
  • The ability to recognize when screen time is healthy and when it is unhealthy; and
  • The self-regulation skillsto avoid using screens when it’s inappropriate (e.g., during dinner or a social event) or even dangerous (e.g., texting while driving).

Are you teaching your children or students these important skills? According to the Kaiser Foundation report, up to half of parents don’t set or enforce rules about screen time. It’s something to think about.

References:

Bindley, K. (2011). When Children Text All Day, What Happens To Their Social Skills? Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/children-texting-technology-social-skills_n_1137570.html

BMJ-British Medical Journal. (2012, October 9). Curb kids' screen time to stave off major health and developmental problems. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121009112138.htm

Elements Behavioral Health. (2012). Screen Addictions Can Cause Children to Lose Social Skills. Retrieved from http://www.addictiontreatmentmagazine.com/addiction/internet-addiction/screen-addiction/

Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/report-generation-m2-media-in-the-lives/

Koutamanis, M., Vossen, H.G.M., Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2013). Practice makes perfect: The longitudinal effect of adolescents’ instant messaging on their ability to initiate offline friendships. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 6, 2265-2272. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.04.033

National Association of School Psychologists. (2002). Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/socialskills_fs.aspx

The Children’s Media Foundation. (n.d.). Parents’ FAQs on children’s use of media. Retrieved from http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/parent-portal

Related reading:

Why Limit Screen Time? Scientific Research Explains

Limiting Young Children’s Screen Time for Long-Term Health

 

 

 

How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Neuroscience-based programs I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators

 

Self-Regulation Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

Self-regulation strategies

When a student with a learning disability struggles academically, it’s logical to think that the issue is related to the student’s deficit in a specific ability. And while that may be true, there might be more to it. Students with learning disabilities often encounter academic difficulties, at least in part, because they don’t have effective strategies for working through challenges.

One effective tool that students can use to improve academic performance, regardless of ability, is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the process by which students take charge of their own learning, monitoring their behavior and progress and making adjustments along the way to get from idea to execution. It’s the transformation of thought into purposeful action. Here are several strategies teachers can introduce for use in the classroom and at home:

Setting Goals

Goal setting is an important part of self-regulation and can be foundational to other self-regulation strategies. When used effectively, the process of goal setting gives students an opportunity to observe their own behavior and pinpoint areas for improvement. It helps students identify what they need to do, lets them see how they are progressing, and motivates them to act productively.

Students should set goals for themselves that are specific and challenging, but not too hard. A goal should be quickly attainable so students can experience a sense of accomplishment and move on to tackle the next one. For example, when two students are struggling with homework, each might need to set a different goal to see improvement. The first student might identify time management as a problem and decide to cut out a leisure activity in order to achieve the goal of completing homework before dinnertime each day that week. The second student might realize that he needs to bring his class notes home from school every day so he has the information he needs to achieve his goal of completing all of his homework assignments for the week.

Self-Monitoring

Students self-monitor by asking themselves whether they have engaged in a specific, desired behavior. Building on the goal-setting examples above, our students might ask themselves, Am I using my time in the right way to complete my homework by dinnertime?Or, Did I put all of my homework assignments in my backpack to take home?Students may find it helpful to self-monitor for behaviors like paying attention, staying on task, following strategy steps, and meeting performance expectations such as completing all homework problems or spelling 8 of 10 spelling words correctly.

Self-Instruction

Self-instruction is also sometimes called “self-talk” and is part of normal development for many younger children. It can also be quite powerful when used by students of any age to purposefully self-regulate and direct learning behavior. For example, a student who is struggling to comprehend a challenging text might think, I need to look up the definitions of these unfamiliar words and read this page again.

Students can use self-talk to remind themselves to focus their attention, to take positive steps when faced with difficulties, to reinforce positive behaviors, and more. Teachers can model effective self-talk, but should allow each student to create and use her own statements. A little advance planning can be helpful here. Coming up with the right phrase in the heat of the moment – when focus has been lost or frustrations are running high – is unlikely to help. But taking a little time to write out some useful statements before starting a new project or beginning a homework assignment can enable students get themselves out of a tight spot.

Self-Reinforcement

Self-reinforcement occurs when a student chooses a motivating reward and then awards it to himself when he achieves a milestone. Self-reinforcement can be used over shorter and longer timeframes and can tie into goals. Our student who has identified time-management as an issue, for example, might decide, I can go to the movies on Sunday because I finished all of my homework before dinnertime every night this week.

Self-reinforcement can also work well in the classroom. Teachers and students can select rewards together and teachers can let students know how to earn them. Once a student has met the criteria for a reward, she can award it to herself – say, by selecting a sticker for her journal after completing the day’s writing assignment and getting her teacher’s approval.

Purposeful Learning

Becoming a better self-regulator isn’t a panacea for academic difficulties, but students with learning disabilities who learn effective self-regulation strategies will have some advantages. They will have tools in their toolbox that they can try out in a variety of situations before seeking outside help, or when help is not immediately available. They will understand how their behavior influences their results. And they will understand that their learning is a purposeful, active process in which they play the leading role.

Best of all, these self-regulation strategies can benefit all learners, not just those who are struggling. Why not give them a try?

References:

Reid, R., Lienemann, T.O., & Hagaman, J.L. (2013). Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities,(2nd ed.) .New York: Guilford Press.

Self-Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cehs.unl.edu/csi/self.shtml

Related reading:

Teaching Persistence: How to Build Student Stamina

5 Reasons Why Every Parent Should Be Familiar with Executive Function

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Family Focus