Posts filed under ‘Parenting’

Training the Brain: Why Online? (Part 1 in a series)

I see a lot of ads lately promoting various computer programs, claiming that they can cure learning disabilities, ADHD, or a number of  other maladies. Readers probably wonder what’s up with that – Do these programs really work? How do they work? Are they worth the cost? In addition to being a certified cognitive training clinician, I did some research into these programs to try to clear things up for you. There’s a lot to discuss, so please bear with me as I dish it out in small installments. After we get through the basics of what, why, and how, I’ll introduce you to a few specific programs and help you sort out which ones are worth a try for you.

First, why would you choose an online program at all? Here are a few advantages:

  1. Cost: Some computer therapies run hundreds to  thousands of dollars, giving parents extra cause to question their value. But compare it to having a professional administer the same treatment in person, at an hourly fee, and the computer wins hands-down. The only thing left to question is whether it can achieve the same results – and that is indeed a great question, which will be addressed in a future installment.
  2. Reliability: Any in-person treatment depends heavily on the individual provider. Of course, you do your best to choose the most competent person available to you, but true quality control is difficult. When you use a computer-based program, you know that the sounds, images, timing, and pacing are exactly the ones prescribed for you. You’re getting the same program as others who reported positive results.
  3. Convenience: A lot of things can interfere with the regular attendance that is necessary for good progress. All of the computer programs I’ve reviewed allow you to load your account from any computer, so you don’t need to miss sessions due to vacations, transportation glitches, or bad weather. You don’t even need to leave your house at all, or negotiate a schedule that works for your clinician as well as your entire family. You can set it up in your living room or office, and then go on with life.
  4. Engagement: Do I need to tell you that computer work holds more appeal for most? While the fun factor of computer-therapy programs varies and is usually not quite enough to keep kids motivated through a long training course, it still feels more interesting than “tutoring” or “therapy.”
  5. Discretion: As much as we try to applaud their strengths and de-stigmatize difficulties, many people are embarrassed about needing help. With interventions taking place on their home computer looking like a game, they can keep their difficulties hidden even from other family members. Instead of feeling dragged to therapy, they get to feel like the cool one for having a computer program special for them.

But is all this really enough to make up for personal therapeutic interaction? The answer, as usual, is “it depends.” Stay tuned for more discussion of what and who these programs are for, which ones are worth a look, and how to tell.



November 3, 2013 at 1:15 am 2 comments

We all started somewhere

IMG_0743You may have wondered where I’ve been. Or maybe you didn’t wonder at all. Or maybe you found this blog more recently and figured it’s another poor, defunct, abandoned idea. Well, not to worry – I’m here and I’ve been busy: There’s a new Little Learning Girl in the family! Which means I should probably come up with better pen names to avoid confusion.

I look at Littlest Learning Girl and marvel at how much she has accomplished in just a couple of months. Besides pooping through every piece of cloth in the house, I mean

  • where to find food and how to get it out (she was not born quite knowing this as her big sister was)
  • how to get her hands into her mouth
  • how to swat at toys to make them move and how to kick to bounce her bouncy seat
  • if you move your eyes and head just right, you can go on seeing something even as it moves away
  • you can get a ton of attention if you smile charmingly enough

This stuff is monumental!

Besides making me ponder all the skills we take for granted (how many of us special ed teachers see school-age kids who can’t do the visual tracking one?) it also reminded me how we all started with nothing. We didn’t pop up as social creatures all at once, we started with a fleeting moment of eye contact. Not only weren’t we born readers or talkers, we started with the smallest phonemes.

In a newborn, we call this cute. Somehow, when they come to us in 1st…5th…8th grade missing any of these skills it doesn’t seem quite as cute. Sometimes it even looks rather hopeless. But then we back up and remember that we all got where we are one baby step at a time. And we look for the next step, whatever that is, because it’s the only way you’ll ever get up. You can’t waste time worrying about whether and why you’ll reach the tenth floor or you’ll never even get halfway to one. I don’t know if my students will ever be on grade level, but one thing I’m sure of: If a helpless newborn baby can start with nothing but reflexes and still manage to find a way to learn about the sights, sounds, and feelings of the world, then I really have to believe there’s a way to meet the student where he is and move him on up.

Whether it’s phonemes to syllables
pictures to numbers
objects to pictures
or even just how to smile charmingly.

January 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm Leave a comment

The Worst Thing You Can Do to Your Kid

Well, assuming that if you’re reading this, you are caring and intelligent enough not to inflict bodily harm or other obvious abuse…

I have come to believe that just about the worst thing you can do to your children is what every parent has always dreamed of being able to do: Give them everything. I have taught – or tried to teach – a few of these “haves,” and find them almost as challenging as the hardest-hit of the have-nots. Here are some of the difficulties these children face:

  • They have few ambitions. They’ve never had to strive for anything and can’t imagine why they should want to.
  • They’re nearly impossible to motivate. Whatever the prize is for academic or behavioral improvement, they either have it already or can get it more easily from mom or dad. And if you punish them, mom/dad is on the hiring board… or something.
  • They can’t handle disappointment. If they’ve had no experience, they don’t know the mental and emotional tools for coping with or overcoming it.
  • They’re often unpleasant to be around, especially if they don’t know about losing gracefully.
The problem is exacerbated when the student has special learning difficulties: While some students can be motivated by the simple joys of learning, that often isn’t enough to keep you going when it’s especially hard, and if you can’t be motivated by rewards or recognition, life is sad indeed. And while some can learn social skills incidentally from their peer group, those who don’t might never catch on to the fact that they are not the center of the real world as much as they are to their parents.
I think one of the saddest things I see is when a person can’t appreciate anything because they are accustomed to taking it for granted. Kids who have candy occasionally delight in it; kids who have it daily don’t delight in much of anything. Please, do your kids a favor and make some things sacred. Treat them sometimes because you love them, and say no sometimes because you love them more. Let them earn some of the things they want so that they will know the joy of achievement and feel their own power, rather than letting them remain passive, powerless recipients of your generosity. We teachers work very hard to help our students develop strong character, but this is one of the hardest things to undo if a parent has thoroughly spoiled their child.
(I think I only once taught a spoiled kid who still had a spark of life in him. But he was a very special kid. And even he was not a very happy child at all.)

November 7, 2011 at 5:35 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s the ELA?

(Apologies to the rest of the universe, as this post is kind of NY-centric. I really don’t know what goes on elsewhere.)

Year after year, I run into at least a handful of students, teachers, and parents in a tizzy about the ELAs. They’re not sure what they are, why they matter, or what to do about them, but they hope I know. And is my kid going to have to take a science ELA?

For starters, please calm down. ELA stands for just “English Language Arts,” and yes, there will be a test.

What is it?

In New York State, the ELA test is given to students in grades 3-8 every Spring. It is a pretty standard language arts test, which includes short reading and listening passages, multiple choice questions, and written responses. Some grades also have a short proofreading exercise. It’s usually given in two sessions on two consecutive days.

Does it matter?

It might. Depending on your school, the results might be used for class placement decisions or to screen for academic risks. Some intervention programs use the results to determine which students should receive government-funded enrichment. School-wide averages may also be used to flag those in need of extra help. In my school, promotion decisions are never based solely on state tests, but it’s up to the schools to decide how much weight to give it.

What should we do about it?

Not much, in my opinion. The New York ELA test seems to address standard skills directly enough that you don’t need to waste much time and energy on test prep. My focus in test preparation is just to let students know what to expect so they don’t get confused and intimidated when opening the test booklet. What this looks like:

  • At the beginning of the year and throughout: Read the state standards so you know what students are expected to know. It won’t tell you exactly what to teach but will give you a general idea of what skill areas to look at.
  • All year: Give a couple of test-style multiple choice questions on each reading assignment. Weave in strategies such as reading all the choices and using the process of elimination.
  •  All year: Integrate language-arts words into your vocabulary, and make sure that students understand them. Use phrases like “character traits” and “theme,” for example.
  • All year: Consider accommodations. The day of the test is too late to arrange for extra time, directions read aloud, or such. Notice when kids are struggling in regular classroom tests and alert your school’s special needs coordinator.
  • Before the test: Do a couple of sample essays with your students. The test essays follow very specific formats, so you can easily coach your students on what is expected of them (more on that in some future post if desired)
  • About a week before the test: Print out a sample test and spend a period or so familiarizing your students with the directions and layout, which change very little (if at all) from year to year.

Note that until the month of the test if not later, my recommendations don’t really change your teaching much at all. Beyond that, there’s nothing you can really do to cram language skills.

What about the math ELA?

Now that you know ELA stands for English Language Arts, you can figure that there is no math, science, or history ELA. Trick question, but one that I’m asked all the time! However, there are state assessments in other subjects, my recommendations for those are similar though I don’t care for the tests as much, and this post is long enough without going into it! Until next time, then!

November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm 2 comments

Friday Finds:

Welcome to Friday Finds! I’ll try to bring you the best of the web every week. Or, if not every week, then on random Fridays because I like alliteration. is an all-purpose site aimed at parents but reasonably relevant to teachers as well. It’s a good starting point for  little of everything, and surprisingly thorough – my usual instinct is to look for specialty sites when researching a particular topic, but for many purposes, this site will serve you quite well. I’m getting no commission for saying this.

What you’ll find:

  • Articles on just about every topic in education. Makes me feel like this blog is a little extraneous. Oh well, I can still try.
  • Educational activity ideas and printable worksheets
  • Q&A forum
  • General topics of interest to parents, such as crafts and recipes.

Why I like it:

  • Well organized: It’s easy to find everything that’s there. Easy to navigate. Easy on the eyes. I like easy. The search tools work great, too – You can search for activities or materials by grade level, topic, and/or subtopic, by clicking tags, or just browsing new or popular items. Very smooth.
  • Real info: Everyone has something to say on the web, but much of it is junk. Here, the material makes sense and is consistent with other current research I’ve read – as well as common sense. Even better, many of the articles are actually written by well-known, respected authors and personalities in educational fields.
  • Great materials: The worksheets and activities are visually appealing, simple, and educationally sound. The articles are written and organized well, easy to understand, and not too long.
  • Thorough: As I stated at the beginning of this post, but will say again because it’s so impressive, this site is remarkably thorough. They seem to have something for everything.
  • FREE! Really free. No “If you want to see the rest of the worksheet, become a paying member.” No spam emails, so far.

Wishful thinking:

This is a darn good site, but could be even better. The ads on this site are not too pervasive, but I do wish you wouldn’t have to click through so many pages. There is only a small amount of material on each page, and frequently after you select your topic you still need to click again to open the article. I assume they do this to maximize ad impressions, but it’s a little annoying, especially if your internet connection is slow. Still, some sites will just annoy you for money – this one at least gives you a good return for it.
I would also love to see more materials for the higher grade levels.

October 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm Leave a comment

Your Baby Can Read – But Should He?

You have probably seen the ads for this program blinking all over the web in recent years, perhaps especially if you frequent baby-related sites. You may even have been offered a “FREE trial!!!” After seeing that enough times, you might have considered signing up – after all, what do you have to lose? Quite a lot, in fact. Read on.

1. Wasted Time: As the “teach your baby to read” people will be eager to tell you, the first couple of years are a critical window of opportunity for brain development. Toddlers are extremely busy people – mine certainly is. She has a lot to learn. But reading isn’t on her list for another few years. At this stage, it’s much more important for her to play. Playing in age-appropriate ways will help her develop gross and fine motor skills, social skills, and a sense of how stuff works. More on that in future posts.

2. Missing Socialization: Arguably the most important thing for a baby to learn during their “window of opportunity” is how to get along with all those other people in the world. Research shows there are no shortcuts for this. No program will ever substitute for old-fashioned quality time with Mom, Dad, or just about anyone else.

3. Too Much TV: The abovementioned only account for part of the reason the AAP recommends minimal screen time for babies. Besides the missed opportunities, screen time may even be inherently harmful. We might never know for sure, but my gut (and some good empirical studies) tells me this can’t be what G-d had in mind when He made our brains.

4. Wrong Window: Evidence strongly suggests that reading readiness is, at least for many children, a stage of brain development that goes beyond simply learning the skills. If we wait five or six years (approximately, and allowing for individual variations), reading is likely to come more easily, more naturally, and through the right parts of the brain.

5. Burnout: Still not convinced that there’s really much to lose? Studies have shown that children who learn academic skills before the normal developmental time frame are more likely to get sick and tired of them when their peers are just getting fired up. Remember how excited you were to read your first book? Well, I don’t either. But remember how excited your child or student was? Can you visualize that same excitement in someone who’s known how to read since before they were toilet trained?

I could probably go on. Maybe I will sometime. But for now, the above reasons are enough to make me wait. There is no known advantage in knowing how to read a handful of basic words before preschool. Meanwhile, we have other learning to take care of, much of which will actually help pave the way for reading in the not-so-distant future.

Interested in REALLY helping your child get a head start in learning? Follow this blog or like it on Facebook and you’ll be the first to know when that post goes up!

October 23, 2011 at 6:05 am Leave a comment


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