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.

 

Let Them Play! The Best Medicine for Summer Learning

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Collins

The importance of play over the summer

If you’re like most parents, you’re probably scrambling to fill up the summer break with activities to keep your children busy while they are out of school. Some new research says you can put down your dailyimportance of play planner and leave some space on your calendar for unstructured free play. There is no need for you to arrange to have every waking moment filled with planned activities like swimming and tennis lessons, day camp, dance classes, sports activities and even summer school. The value of unstructured play is often overlooked. It results in increased executive functions (EFs), which control and manage cognitive processes. This helps children to develop skills like working memory, impulse control, decision-making, troubleshooting, and organizational skills they need for a successful future.

The University of Colorado recently published a study confirming the value of just letting children play. The study found that unstructured play increases “executive function” skills. This means that children who engage in free play are more likely to work independently as students, establish their own goals and concentrate better in a crowded classroom where chaos sometimes reigns.

Even experts who recommend some structure during the summer break for those who need help keeping up with or improving their reading skills note that play is an important part of the improvement plan. So, just what is meant by unstructured play?


Unstructured play versus structured play

Remember when you were a child and pushed chairs together and arranged sheets or blankets across them to create a fort? That is only one example of free or unstructured play. When children let their imaginations run wild and pretend a living room chair is a car they are driving to another country, they are engaging in free play. Having a backyard camp out is another example when children can make their own plans and rules.

Examples of structured play are things like swimming classes, dance lessons and sports activities. The events happen at defined times and places and are generally led by an adult. Even board games fall into this category since the children follow the established rules. If, instead, children create their own board game and use the freedom to create their own rules, it would become unstructured play.

Sometimes, the activities may seem to overlap. Avid readers may consider it play when they read their favorite book. That would be structured play. Writing their own story and turning it into a book they make and illustrate themselves is unstructured or free play.


Tangible benefits of free play

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long been advocating for children to spend more time in free play. Specifically, the Academy states: “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” Some of the benefits of free play discussed by the AAP include:

  • Opportunities to practice decision making skills.
  • Discovering their interests and passions.
  • Assuming adult roles where they can control outcomes and overcome fears.
  • Working with other children in groups.
  • Negotiating, decision-making and creating rules for games with their peers.
  • Promoting health through physical activity.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Learning the value of social bonds through interacting with other children.
  • Building self-confidence since they are in charge.
  • Learning self-direction (this may be the most valuable lesson children learn from free play).


Join in at playtime!

Parents should also spend time playing with their children. If your child wants to play “restaurant” and tells you to be the diner, comply with the request and enjoy watching him or her create a menu, take your order, and bring you pretend food. If your children invite you in to their blanket fort, go in and enjoy eating s’mores by the pretend campfire.

Have fun with your children as you encourage and participate in their unstructured play, knowing that they are developing valuable skills that will help them in the classroom and throughout their lives.


Key Takeaways:

  • Don’t overbook children with structured activities over the summer.
  • Free play helps children develop valuable skills, such as decision-making.
  • Get involved! Let your children lead the activities during unstructured playtime.

 

Related Reading:

Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day
Building a Fit Brain: The Serious Work of Play

 

Carter’s Story: Diagnosing and Treating Dyslexia

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

“I knew there were leaves on trees, but had never really seen them.”

Joanne Gouaux remembers when she was 8 years old, sitting in an ophthalmologist’s office, waiting to put on her first pair of glasses. As soon as she put them on, she looked out the window. She saw leaves clearly for the very first time.

“I feel like that’s what’s happening with Carter and words. It’s like he knew words were for reading, but couldn’t quite make sense of them himself.” She went on to say “I knew leaves existed, but had never truly seen them.” Joanne is the mother of Carter, who was just recently diagnosed with dyslexia.

Carter loves Legos, spy trap inventions, and 9-year-old humor. He’s always been a good problem solver, talkative, social and curious. But he was not learning how to read.

Now, after Fast ForWord, things have changed. He’s reading signs outside and making jokes about them.                                                                                          

“Mom, if you take the ‘gr’ off of that sign 'Keep off the Grass'…and he bursts into laughter.”

___________________________________________________________________

Early clues

When Carter started school, he attended an academically rigorous private school. By the spring of kindergarten, the teachers noted that he was experiencing a few problem areas:

  1. Connecting sounds and symbols
  2. Remembering things he had just written
  3. Struggling to read and write.

His teachers suggested that Carter be withdrawn from private school and seek services in public school. The resource specialist also recommended that Carter receive specialized vision testing to rule out perceptual difficulties. Vision problems were ruled out by a neuro-ophthalmologist, and a developmental pediatrician was also able to rule out traumatic brain injury. The pediatrician did suggest the possibility of a ‘budding learning disability’.  Joanne explained, “She assured us that public school would have the best resources to support Carter.”


Searching for the right school

Carter-dyslexia

Joanne enrolled Carter in a public school known for its high test scores. It was poor fit from the start. “His teacher refused to recognize his struggles as legitimate,” Joanne recalls. “She called him lazy in front of me, and took away recess time for not finishing his writing assignments quickly.” Carter went from loving school to feeling sad and anxious each morning. After just three months, Joanne transferred him to a school “more in line with his learning style” - an independent school with a kinesthetic learning curriculum.

Carter made friends quickly at his new school, and his teachers appreciated his curiosity. But in the spring, Joanne was called into a meeting with Carter’s teacher, the resource specialist, and the head of the school to discuss Carter’s results on the Woodcock Johnson tests, which measure cognitive performance. “The scores clearly showed how little he was retaining from the classroom,” she says. At the time, Joanne was told it was just a stage and Carter would come through it with continued team effort.


Almost held back

But two weeks before the end of the year, she was called back for a team meeting with the recommendation that Carter be held back. Joanne was exasperated with the late notice.

“I did not believe that Carter needed another year of first grade,” she says. “He had a rich Kindergarten experience, and lots of reading support at home. I knew there had to be something else underneath that was preventing him from emerging as a reader and writer. Faced with possibility of being held back a year, Carter was heartbroken and discouraged.”


Finding the right intervention

Joanne decided to look for help elsewhere. Her mom, who is dyslexic, suggested that she contact the fraternal organizations, such as the Shriners. Joanne found the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic in Oakland, CA, and met with the director, Pamela Norton. Norton told Joanne about Fast ForWord, which, she said, could bring his grade level performance up one to two years. “I cried,” Joanne says. “I finally found someone who not only believed in Carter, but was also willing and capable of helping.”

In June of 2013, Carter began using the Fast ForWord Language program, with weekly support from the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic. By August, Joanne says “he was within norms for second grade. Fast ForWord allowed him to enter second grade, rather than being held back and repeating first grade.”


At last…The right diagnosis!

Beginning that summer, when Carter was starting to catch up with his peers, Joanne pursued further testing at her own expense. After WISC testing and a battery of Woodcock Johnson assessments by a Developmental Pediatrician, Carter was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in September, 2013.


Carter’s progress

Currently, Carter has daily support through the school "learning center" (1/2 hour per day). He has an IEP which became effective last fall, 2014. Carter continues to struggle with writing and motor planning -- but his skills are emerging and accommodations like voice-to-text typing allow him to be a more independent learner.
 

At Carter's last parent teacher conference his teacher and resource specialist noted mental focus and a desire to learn as major strengths. Carter is an avid audio book listener, which allows him to access some much needed academic stimulation, and supports the continued growth of his language skills. 

Now that that he is in 4th grade, Carter is reading Level 2 readers and decoding words. His confidence has soared. “He no longer dreads opening a book,” his mother says, and “he's proud of himself when he writes. He still experiences bouts of frustration and discouragement like any student, only now he feels confident that he can break things down into smaller steps to accomplish his assignments and goals.”

 

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

3 Tips For Your Reluctant Reader This Summer

Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

reluctant reader

Summer is fast approaching, and with that, questions about how to keep your child engaged and continuing to learn.  Scientific research suggests that students lose academic abilities over the summer holiday, and failing to practice literacy skills may lead to particular challenges when school starts again in the fall.  If you have a child who is not yet reading, or struggles to read, you undoubtedly want to make sure he or she moves ahead this summer.  Check out these ideas below!

1. Do at least 30 minutes of literacy-related activity 5 days per week.  

Keeping your child engaged in a literacy-related task nearly every day can be fun! Consider a few of the following ways to incorporate reading practice into your everyday summer life:

  • Read a magazine together.  Summer is the perfect time to lounge in a hammock or beach chair with a magazine.  Engage your young reader by finding an appealing, child-friendly magazine. National Geographic for Kids, American Girl magazine, Highlights, and Ranger Rick are great magazines with engaging articles for kids.  Take turns reading sections of the magazine. Talk about the pictures and vocalize what you're thinking to your child, e.g. "I'm wondering what happens to polar bears when the ice caps melt. What do you think?" Showing your child how you think when you read will encourage your child to do the same. 
  • Make bedtime reading a part of your routine.  Many parents would like to keep a bedtime reading routine going all school year, but sometimes the busy-ness of life gets in the way. Summer is a great time to get back to the pre-sleep literacy routine. Take time to read a high interest chapter book together. Let your child lead the way by choosing the chapter book.  For children with lower reading ability, alternating who reads each page can keep both of you engaged. 
  • Do Fast ForWord!  Summer is an ideal time for reluctant and struggling readers to work on the foundational skills that might not get adequate attention in the regular classroom during the school year. Instead of falling behind, your child can make multiple years' growth over the summer, in just 30 minutes/day. 

2. Keep interest in reading activities high.  

We all learn best if we are motivated by and interested in what we are reading and slow or reluctant learners are no exception. What is your child interested in? Which books does he/she like at school?  It’s often just a matter of perusing library or bookstore shelves to find something that is a good fit. The Captain Underpants series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Magic Treehouse series are fantastic books with wide appeal.  And don't discount the non-fiction options -- a book of basketball facts may not seem very “literary” to you, but it is a fantastic way to get a sports-loving reluctant reader to practice sounding out new words and learning new vocabulary.  Similarly, a kid who would rather be playing Minecraft might enjoy reading a Minecraft book series such as the Diary of a Wimpy Villager.

While structured reading time is important, you can also be creative about incorporating literacy into everyday life.  Read food labels when shopping at the grocery store, read an article from a favorite magazine together, read signs as you drive through town, play rhyming games, leave notes under your child’s pillow, or encourage your child to decode his/her own restaurant menu.  The opportunity for literacy activities are all around; just take the time to intentionally use them to boost your child’s literacy.

3. Play and imagine together.

Parents sometimes mistakenly believe that reading is the only way to improve literacy. However, at its core, literacy is about flexible use of language.  Talking, storytelling, and using your imagination are great ways to build literacy.

For example, use time in the car or at dinner for storytelling.  Tell a story from your childhood, describing characters and situations as vividly as you can -- have you ever been chased by a dog or found a lost dog? What were you good at in school (or not so good at)? When did you meet your best friend and what did you love to do together? What was your favorite activity as a child? When did you get in trouble and why? Turn these moments into juicy stories that encourage your child to listen and return by storytelling in kind. We all have plenty of stories to tell!  This builds language and creativity, contributing to literacy (and family bonding). 

This year, fight summer learning loss by engaging your child in daily activities to improve literacy.  By practicing reading, language, and creative abilities, you’ll set your child on a trajectory of success when it’s time to head back to school in the fall.

 

Strengths and Benefits of ADHD and Dyslexia

Tuesday, April 7, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Benefits of ADHD and DyslexiaIn many educational and medical settings, common learning problems such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia are viewed from a deficits model. Under this approach, an expert makes a diagnosis by assessing a person’s behavior or thinking abilities. If the child has a deficit compared to typically developing individuals, he or she is given a diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability, for example. While there are some historical and scientific reasons for approaching learning differences in this way, many patient advocates are calling for a move toward a “strengths-based” approach to understanding these conditions.

Rethinking the Deficit Model of ADHD and Dyslexia

In recent years, the autism community has gained attention for a novel way of looking at autism spectrum disorders. Many individuals in the higher-functioning Asperger’s syndrome category embrace their diagnosis with pride. Calling themselves “Aspies,” these people say that they recognize their information processing differences but would not want to be “cured,” even if a successful treatment for autism spectrum disorders were available. Rather, the Aspies celebrate their learning differences and say that their different way of approaching the world has a lot to teach others.

More recently, scientists and education advocates have been calling for a move toward this strengths-based approach to other common learning differences that emerge in childhood. In particular, ADHD and dyslexia have emerged as two disorders that could be reconceptualized under a strengths-based model. Rather than focusing solely on the learning or processing deficits people with these diagnoses have, it is important to recognize some of their unique strengths. Reframing the conversation around strengths and weaknesses, rather than deficits alone, allows some of the benefits of ADHD and dyslexia to emerge.

Benefits of ADHD

People with ADHD often have several traits that set them apart from their peers. Some common benefits of ADHD include:

  • Creativity: Fluctuating attention can lead to productive mind-wandering and random thoughts. Often, brilliant creative insights emerge from these times when the mind is doing its own thing. People with ADHD often generate new ideas and have novel ways of looking at problems. This makes them an asset in fields such as design, science and entrepreneurship. In fact, a recent initiative aims to better train and retain engineering students with ADHD, who are often prized for their creativity and risk-taking.
  • Curiosity: Teachers and family members of people with ADHD often comment on their curiousity and desire to learn. Many individuals with ADHD say that they are multi-interested and passionate about many subject areas. This curiosity leads people with ADHD to learn from many subject areas and stay motivated to integrate new information in novel ways. This curiosity means that many people with ADHD are lifelong learners who develop expertise in numerous areas of study.
  • Hyperfocus: For some people with ADHD, working on a problem they are passionate about yields hyperfocus. During periods of hyperfocus, people report that they work for hours with intense energy and relentless attention. This ability to focus intently on a problem at hand is an incredible advantage compared to neurotypical people. Thus, identifying an area of passion can yield enormous dividends for a person with ADHD.
  • Energy: Educators sometimes bemoan the high energy of children with ADHD, but they can often turn their energetic impulses into constructive outlets. People with ADHD often enjoy fast-paced environments that involve doing a lot of different things. As a result, adults with ADHD frequently enjoy working as physicians, salespeople or police officers.

Benefits of Dyslexia

Like ADHD, dyslexia represents a different way of processing information. Although reading is an area of difficulty for people with dyslexia, scientific evidence suggests that they have many other areas of strength.

  • Excellent spatial reasoning. Words may seem to swim on the page, but people with dyslexia often have superb visuospatial abilities. In a 2009 study, scientists at the University of East London found that adolescents with dyslexia were better at navigating and remembering a virtual environment than a nondyslexic comparison group. These visuospatial abilities make people with dyslexia highly suited to work in engineering, graphic and industrial design, construction and related professions.
  • Narrative reasoning: Scientists have found that dyslexics often remember facts as stories or experiences rather than as abstract pieces of information. This “narrative reasoning” style may result in improved memory and better integration of contextual information.
  • Empathy: Struggling to read causes many people with dyslexia to develop a strong sense of empathy. As a result of these early struggles (and the persistence needed to overcome them), people with dyslexia report that they are able to take others’ perspectives and relate to others on an emotional level. 
  • Critical thinking: Logical reasoning is another area of strength for people with dyslexia. They can often see holes in an argument, point out logical jumps, and use their critical thinking abilities to solve problems.

Living with ADHD and Dyslexia

At first, it may be difficult to adjust to a child's diagnosis of ADHD or dyslexia.  However, it's incredibly important to realize that these are merely labels that come with unique styles of processing information that give other advantages. Famous authors Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled with dyslexia. Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Airlines, has ADHD but put his strengths of creativity and curiosity to work as an entrepreneur. Looking at these role models (and many, many others) and taking a strengths-based perspective gives people living with these diagnoses a better opportunity to understand their own unique strengths and contributions.  If you or your child has been diagnosed with ADD or dyslexia, what strengths do you notice?

 

Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADD

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D


In this op-ed in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the urgent need to address the needs of students with attention problems.  Given the dramatic recent increase in the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in school-aged children [according to the Centers for Disease Control, the lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase], Dr. Friedman argues for a need to find more natural (non-medical) ways to help these students. In his op-ed he states, “In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced technology-based assignments, and tasks that build specific skills.”

Whereas many parents and educators consider medication as a first approach to management of disorders of attention, the recent dramatic increase in the incidence and the call for consideration of non-medical interventions for school-aged children is important for parents and teachers to consider when managing learning issues within the classroom. One important type of attention disorder that has been treated successfully without medication is auditory attention disorders associated with some types of learning disabilities. Research conducted by Courtney Stevens and her colleagues at the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has shown that children with specific language learning disorders have problems with auditory attention. Parents and educators rarely use the term “auditory attention”; however, the Stevens et al. research is increasingly supportive of its important role in learning.

We all recognize students who have problems with auditory attention: those who cannot stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a class discussion in school). In fact, when educators use the term “listening skills,” they are referring to auditory attention.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success.  According to the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening. Auditory attention skills mature over time, and like many other skills important for learning (memory, thinking skills), students vary in their ability. Children with ADHD have a known diagnosis of significant auditory (and visual) attention problems. However, according to the Stevens et al. research, even across typical learners there is a variation of ability ranging from those with average auditory attention skills to those with excellent auditory attention skills. And like with other cognitive skills, independent controlled research indicates that Fast ForWord training can significantly improve auditory attention and/or reading skills in a variety of students:  typical students and those with specific language impairment.

For those interested in the specifics of the Stevens et al. study, she and her colleagues examined whether six weeks of Fast ForWord Language training would influence neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention previously shown to be deficient in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Twenty 6-8 year old students received Fast ForWord Language training, including 8 students diagnosed with SLI and 12 students with typically developing language skills. An additional 13 students with typically developing language received no specialized training but were tested and retested after a comparable time period as a control group.  Before and after training, students received a standardized language assessment as well as a highly objective electrophysiological neural measure of attention using Event-Related Potentials (ERP).

Compared to the control group, students receiving Fast ForWord Language training showed increases in standardized measures of receptive language as well as an improved effect of attention on neural processing. No significant change was noted in the control group. The enhanced effect of attention on neural processing represented a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.8, indicating that the average child in the experimental group is comparable to the child at the 79th percentile of the comparison group). These findings indicate that the neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention, previously shown to be deficient in children with SLI, can be remediated through training and can accompany improvements on standardized measurements of language development.

Other controlled research, presented by Deutsch et al. at a CHADD conference several years ago, also showed improvement in attention among those students with a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD plus language impairment. In fact, if one considers Dr. Friedman’s finding that children with attention disorders benefit from “self-paced technology-based assignments and tasks that build specific skills,” there are no better designed self-paced e-learning programs than the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant solutions. The Fast ForWord Reading products and Reading Assistant tasks are self-paced online tasks that require sustained auditory attention.  The tasks in Reading Assistant especially require activities that include listening to modeled reading, reading aloud while receiving corrective feedback through listening, listening to your own reading, and then answering questions about what was read.  Answering “think about it” comprehension questions further exercises both auditory memory and executive function skills.

In conclusion, the effort to find more natural, non-medical ways to help students with attentional disorders is at hand.  Self-paced technology programs like the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord series provide one proven alternative for improving attentional skills in students with language-based learning issues as well as those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. 

Further Reading:

Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

Students Show Improved Auditory Attention and Early Reading Skills After Fast ForWord Intervention

Related Reading:

Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

 

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

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

Early language experienceThe 30-Million-Word Gap: How Vocabulary Impacts the Achievement Gap

An 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 in the preschool years. 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

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Family Focus