10 Tips for a Great Parent-Teacher Connection This Year

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 08:00
  • Lynn Gover

You may just be starting school or you may be in full swing. Either way, it's important that you start your relationship with your child's teacher on the right foot. Prepare for parent-teacher conferenceResearch indicates that family engagement is a key factor when it comes to a child’s academic success. Make the most of your time when you first meet the new teacher or during Parent-Teacher conferences by doing your homework and showing up prepared with questions and talking points that are relevant to you and your child.

  1. Make a list of your questions. Sometimes we have a whole list of topics and questions that we’re thinking about, but when we’re put on the spot we can’t recall any of them. Write down your questions to use as a reference during your meeting.
  2. Write down your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Having an open discussion about your child’s strengths and weaknesses can bring valuable insight to your child’s teacher that she might not have witnessed in the classroom. Also share specific rewards and motivations that you use at home.
  3. Review your child’s work, grades and progress reports. Pay special attention to teacher communications sent home and how your child has been progressing so far. Walk into the meeting prepared with specific questions or items you want feedback or clarification on.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask the teacher about communication preferences.  Is he/she available after hours to talk about your child’s progress? Or maybe email works better? Be sensitive to a teacher's schedule and workload when asking for support - praising a teacher's strengths goes a long way in building good rapport.   
  5. What support services are available? How does she handle it if your child needs some extra help? If your child does need extra assistance, what is the school's Response to Intervention process? Is afterschool support available?
  6. Ask about your child’s reading progress. Although you may have a good idea if your child is reading on grade level (or not), find out about the specifics of your child’s reading skills. Some questions to ask include:  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? How can I help support these reading efforts at home?
  7. Don’t forget to ask about cognitive skills! Cognitive skills are the foundation for all learning, which makes this conversation so important. Some questions to ask include:

How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:

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?

Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?

Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading, is my child decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring? In math, is my child showing signs of struggling during computations or retrieving simple number facts? In writing, is my child generating coherent ideas without a lot of support and putting them into words?

Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?

8. How about social skills? Find out how your child interacts with other students in the classroom. How is he without direct supervision? How does he handle conflict with other students? Ask about how you can help to improve his social skills at home.

9. Find out about State Testing & Advancement. Is there a schedule available? Ask your child’s teacher if they have any concerns about your child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests.

10. Ask how you can help support your child’s academic success (and how you can help support the teacher!). Are there specific ways you can stay informed about what your child is currently learning in school? Can you carry those lessons through in your day-to-day activities with your child? Some teachers have websites to keep parents in the loop; some may send newsletters home or have a specific bulletin board or binder you can check in the classroom. Coming to your teacher with supportive questions can go a long way. Keep in mind that teachers are under significant pressure and it goes a long way to acknowledge what they're doing for your child and the others in their class. You are on the same team! 

In addition to this list, you can print out our Top 10 Brain-Based Questions for Your Child's Teacher. If you have any concerns about your child falling behind or about his academic performance before Parent-Teacher Conferences, don’t wait! Contact your child’s teacher right away and arrange a meeting earlier.

Having an open line of communication with your child’s teacher is so important, both to your child’s academic success as well as to your involvement in your child’s academic career. You may also find out about parent volunteer opportunities and planned field trips, so that you can see how your child interacts with his or her peers and teachers in a natural setting. Take advantage of this opportunity to work together with your child’s teacher to set him up for a successful school year!


New Research Shows How to Minimize Side Effects of Chemo

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

Key Points:Fast ForWord and chemotherapy

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

The cognitive impact of chemotherapy on children

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

After cancer – what are the implications on learning?

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

Increased survival rates = increased studies on effects

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

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

Research study: can we counteract these cognitive aftereffects?

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

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

The results

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


When Test Scores Go Up, Do Cognitive Skills Increase?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading:

Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency



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


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

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

 5 key elements to look for in brain exercisesNeuroscience-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.

Here 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.


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


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

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

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

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

Going Offline

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

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

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

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

The Productive Faces of Idleness


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Standing Up for Downtime

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading:

Sleep: An Essential Ingredient for Memory Function

Stress and The Human Brain



How I Became an Early Reader

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 (All day)
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

early reader

Do you recall how you learned to read? Were you an early reader, someone who learned to read before starting school? I was an early reader and so were my brother and sister. Yet, we didn’t learn to read in the way that most early readers learn.

According to Dolores Durkin’s landmark study of early readers, most children who start school knowing how to read were read to on a regular basis by their parents. My family was lower middle-class and I cannot recall my parents reading to or with me in the traditional sense—sitting next to me with a children’s storybook. Indeed, after reading Durkin’s study, I had to ask my mother how I learned to read.

When I chatted with my mother about this, she reminded me that my father was a musician who played in his band on weekends at local clubs. Although his day job was as a factory worker, he would regularly come home from work, take his shower, and come into the living room with his saxophone or clarinet in hand. For a half hour to an hour several days a week he would rehearse for his upcoming gig (big band songs popular from the 1940s and 50s) while my mother, brother, sister, and I would often sit with him and sing along with the songs that we had heard him play and heard on the radio throughout our childhoods. We also had songbooks in front of us so we could follow along with the words after my mother’s lead. The rhythmic and melodic nature of these old songs made them easy to learn and remember. As we sang them week after week, we apparently began to match the words that we were singing with the printed words in the songbooks. I never thought of this as reading, but in retrospect it clearly was one of my initiations into reading the printed word.

I also remember my mother regularly reading poetry to me after I had said my nighttime prayers and before I went to sleep. Mom often had a favorite child’s poem or prayer that she would read once or twice while I would listen. After a minute or two to chat about the poem I was off to sleep.  Over the course of the next several days she would bring in the same poem and invite me to join in the recitation, eventually reaching the point where I could often recite the entire text on my own. Later, she would show me the poem in the printed form and I found I could read it to her. Although my “reading” was mostly a matter of memorization of the poem, the fact that I was matching the words I recited to the words on the page was an early form of reading. Interestingly, when my mom took me in for first grade screening (we didn’t have kindergarten in my school), I read for the teacher and found myself spending time in the second grade classroom for reading instruction.    

Now years later as I reflect on how I learned to read, I realize that many of the things my parents had done to introduce me into reading were much the same methods that have been advocated for building phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency—the Common Core foundations for reading. My parents exposed me to short, highly rhythmic and melodic texts that were enjoyable, easy to learn, and played with the sounds of language. Before I recited the songs and poems on my own, my parents modeled the texts by reading or singing them to me. Later we engaged in a form of assisted reading by reading them together as a family or with one of my parents. And then, once I had learned the songs and poems, I found myself reciting them over and over again—I had a hard time getting them out of my head. Although my parents may not have known the term “repeated reading,” that was exactly what they were providing for my siblings and me. 

Sometimes the best models for good reading instruction can be found in our own personal histories. I think I found my models and inspiration for my work in reading fluency from my own parents.  Thanks Mom and Dad!

Further reading:

Reutzel, D.R. & Cooter, R.B. (2004). The Essentials of Teaching Children to Read . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


1Durkin, D. (1978 - 1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, pp. 481-533.

Related reading:

Inspiring Fluency: One School’s Journey to Improve Reading Skills

Why We Can’t Neglect Reading Fluency – A Personal Journey



The Neglected (But Necessary) Goal of Your Reading Program

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

goal of your reading program If you’ve been following Dr. Timothy Rasinski’s webinars and posts on this blog, then you know how passionate he is about reading fluency. In September, more than 2000 educators signed up to hear Dr. Rasinski speak about the importance of fluency instruction.

What fluency is really about, Rasinski explained, is automaticity in word recognition and reading with appropriate expression. There are many kids at the middle school level and higher—and even adults—Rasinski said, who come across as robotic readers and could benefit from greater fluency.

Dr. Rasinski entertained many questions along the way in his most recent webinar, such as:

  • What are the building blocks of fluency?
  • How much time should be spent on fluency instruction?
  • How does word recognition instruction affect fluency?
  • How effective is reader’s theater as a fluency activity?
  • When should students be reading above their instructional level?

A recording of the complete webinar, including audience questions and answers, is now available. Anyone who works with beginning or struggling readers, or who wishes to improve their own reading fluency, can benefit from Rasinski’s insights.

In just a few short weeks, Dr. Rasinski will return to give a follow-up presentation continuing the fluency conversation. The next presentation will focus on methods for effective reading practice. Check our  webinar registration page for details, or follow us on  Twitter or  Facebook for webinar announcements

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be “Hot!”

Reading and Riding: How Learning to Read is Like Learning to Ride a Bike



Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 (All day)
  • Beth Rogowsky, Ed.D

better writer

When teachers think of teaching writing, they typically begin with the type of writing they want their students to compose—persuasive pieces, personal narratives, academic essays and the like. They think of following the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing—and conduct mini-lessons during writers’ workshop. Others teachers begin diagraming sentences, discussing subject-verb agreement or distinguishing between nominative and objective case pronouns.

All too often, however, little attention is given to the cognitive skills of writing. And that’s a shame, because cognitive skills are the building blocks upon which writing depends.

The Cognitive Building Blocks of Writing

Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, sequencing, and processing speed underlie all composition. It is generally presumed that by middle and high school, students have mastered these basic cognitive skills, and, as such, mainstream writing curricula for secondary students rarely explicitly address the cognitive skills of writing. Nonetheless, research evidence is mounting that many middle and high school students who continue to struggle with writing have not mastered the underlying cognitive and linguistic skills on which written language depends (Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996)


To write cohesive, readable, and understandable text, the writer must not only have a firm linguistic foundation in order to select the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structure to convey the meaning intended, but must also hold the concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical form of sentences and paragraphs in working memory while formulating each new sentence.

The writing process itself places considerable demands on real-time verbal working memory, as writers construct and hold in mind the ideas they wish to express, inhibiting the irrelevant and attending to the relevant details of what they are presently writing. Simultaneously writers must keep in mind what they have already written, and plan for what they are about to write to complete their thoughts (Torrance & Galbraith, 2008).


Another cognitive skill that has been shown to affect writing is focused and sustained attention (Ransdell, Levy, & Kellogg, 2002). A writer’s full attention is consumed in thinking about what to say and applying correct spelling, punctuation, and syntactical rules to what is written. Sentence generation involves consciously reflecting on and manipulating knowledge that needs to be retrieved rapidly from long-term memory or actively maintained in short-term working memory.  Writers must toggle their attention between formulating their thoughts to be written and the transcriptional demands of actually recording these thoughts in written form, all the while inhibiting distractions from the environment.

Sequencing and Processing Speed

Writing also places heavy demands on both perceptual and motor sequencing. Writers must process their thoughts sequentially as they compose letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs that conform to the rules of any language. Applying language rules during writing—from recalling the correct sequence of letters within words, to recalling the proper order of words within sentences (such as, in English, nouns precede verbs and adjectives precede nouns), to building multiple paragraphs within a composition—also places particularly heavy demands on the writer’s sequencing abilities.

As the writer translates this mental process into a motor process of composing each word in a sentence, all preceding words in that sentence must be kept in working memory while words and sentences are strung into paragraphs. The writer needs to coordinate these cognitive tasks almost simultaneously, placing heavy demands on processing speed . The significance of processing speed is felt most heavily in the classroom, where students who cannot process rapidly enough are often times left behind.

What the Research Says

Because of the heavy cognitive demands that writing places on attention, sequencing, working memory, and processing speed, Robert T. Kellogg, a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University suggested (Kellogg, 2008) that explicit cognitive skills training programs—especially ones that emphasize deliberate practice—might prove particularly beneficial in improving student’s writing skills.

In two separate studies conducted by the author (Rogowsky, 2010; Rogowsky, Papamichalis, Villa, Heim, & Tallal, 2013) a significant improvement in students’ writing skills occurred after their participation in a computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training. In the first study, a pretest-posttest randomized field trial was conducted in a public middle school (Rogowsky, 2010). The study compared the writing skills of sixth-grade students who either did or did not receive individually adaptive, computer-based cognitive skills instruction ( Fast ForWord) in conjunction with their standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum for one school marking period (45 days). The writing skills of students who received the cognitive training, in addition to the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum, improved significantly more than those who received the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum alone, with a large between-group difference.

In a second study, Fast ForWord training was shown to improve college students’ writing (Rogowsky et al., 2013). College students with poor writing skills participated in 11 weeks of computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training, and were compared to a group of college students from the general population of the same university. Results from this study showed the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training, but exceeded the writing skills of the comparison group after training. Although writing was not explicitly trained, the individually adaptive, computer-based training designed to improve foundational cognitive and linguistic skills generalized to improve writing skills in both middle school and college students.

What it Means for Writing Instruction

Based upon these two studies, there is clearly a link between writing and the foundational cognitive skills upon which writing exists. Learning to write is one of the most cognitively demanding academic activities a student must perform. It is not surprising that so many students struggle to perfect and improve their writing abilities throughout their academic years. In addition to the traditional writing methodologies, the future of writing instruction calls for the inclusion of cognitive skills training.


Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Swanson, H.L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin. S., Gould, L., Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word- and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, forth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, 179-193. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0002)

Berninger, V.W., Fuller, F., & Whitaker, D. (1996). A process model of writing development across the life span. Educational Psychology Review, 8(3), 193-218. doi: 10.1007/BF01464073

Kellogg, R.T. (2008).Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26. http://www.jowr.org/articles/vol1_1/JoWR_2008_vol1_nr1_Kellogg.pdf

Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R.T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2(2), 141-163. doi: 10.1023/A:1020851300668

Rogowsky, B.A. (2010). The impact of Fast ForWord® on sixth grade students’ use of Standard Edited American English . (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3432348)

Rogowsky, B.A., Papamichalis, P., Villa, L., Heim, S., & Tallal, P. (2013). Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4,137. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00137

Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2008). The processing demands of writing. In C.A. MacArthur S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (67-80). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Related reading:

Reading to Write: Fast ForWord Writing Improvement Among College Students

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency



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