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‘I’m Not Stupid, Just Dyslexic’ — And How Brain Science Can Help

Sixth-grader Josh Thibeau has been struggling to read for as long as he can remember. He has yet to complete a single Harry Potter book, his personal goal.

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, imagines his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mother, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, thinks of his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mom, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

When he was in first grade, Josh’s parents enrolled him in a research study at Boston Children’s Hospital investigating the genetics of dyslexia. Since then, Josh has completed regular MRI scans of his brain. Initially, it seemed daunting.

“When we first started, I’m like, ‘Oh no, you’re sending me to like some strange, like, science lab where I’m going to be injected with needles and it’s going to hurt,’ I’m like, ‘I’m never going to see my family again,’ ” says Josh, who lives in West Newbury, Mass.

Josh and his three biological siblings all have dyslexia to varying degrees. Pretty much every day he confronts the reality that his brain works differently than his peers’. He’s even shared scans of his brain with classmates to try to show those differences. Some kids still don’t get it.

“There was a student that said, ‘Are you stupid?’ Because my brain was working in a different way,” Josh says. “And I’m just like, ‘No, I am not stupid…I’m just dyslexic.’ ”

The Pre-Reading Brain 

On average, one or two kids in every U.S. classroom has dyslexia, a brain-based learning disability that often runs in families and makes reading difficult, sometimes painfully so.

Compared to other neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or autism, research into dyslexia has advanced further, experts say. That’s partly because dyslexia presents itself around a specific behavior: reading — which, as they say, is fundamental.

Now, new research shows it’s possible to pick up some of the signs of dyslexia in the brain even before kids learn to read. And this earlier identification may start to substantially influence how parents, educators and clinicians tackle the disorder.

Until recently (and sometimes even today) kids who struggled to read were thought to lack motivation or smarts. Now it’s clear that’s not true: Dyslexia stems from physiological differences in the brain circuitry. Those differences can make it harder, and less efficient, for children to process the tiny components of language, called phonemes.

And it’s much more complicated than just flipping your “b’s and “d’s.” To read, children need to learn to map the sounds of spoken language — the “KUH”, the “AH”, the “TUH” — to their corresponding letters. And then they must grasp how those letter symbols, the “C” “A” and “T”, create words with meaning. Kids with dyslexia have far more trouble mastering these steps automatically.

For these children, the path toward reading is often marked by struggle, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. In general, a diagnosis of dyslexia usually means that a child has experienced multiple failures at school.

But collaborations currently underway between neuroscientists at MIT and Children’s Hospital may mark a fundamental shift in addressing dyslexia, and might someday eliminate the anguish of repeated failure. In preliminary findings, researchers report that brain measures taken in kindergartners — even before the kids can read — can “significantly” improve predictions of how well, or poorly, the children can master reading later on.

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Pinpointing The White Matter Culprit

Using cutting-edge MRI technology, the researchers are able to pinpoint a specific neural pathway, a white matter tract in the brain’s left hemisphere that appears to be related to dyslexia: It’s called the arcuate fasciculus.

“Maybe the most surprising aspect of the research so far is how clear a signal we see in the brains of children who are likely to go on to be poor readers.”
– MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli

“It’s an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language,” Elizabeth Norton, a neuroscientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute of Brain Research, explains.

In her lab, Norton shows me brain images from the NIH-funded kindergartner study, called READ (for Researching Early Attributes of Dyslexia).

“We see that in children who in kindergarten already have strong pre-reading scores, their arcuate fasciculus is both bigger and more well organized,” she says. On the other hand: “A child with a score of zero has a very small and not particularly organized arcuate fasciculus.”

She says we’re not quite ready to simply take a picture of your child’s brain and say “Aha, this kid is going to have dyslexia,” but we’re getting closer to that point. Continue reading

A Bittersweet Graduation For Patients At The Mass. Hospital School

Brian Devin, CEO of The Massachusetts Hospital School, speaks with student Miguel M. in the cafeteria after lunch. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Brian Devin, CEO of The Massachusetts Hospital School, speaks with student Miguel M. in the cafeteria after lunch. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Gabrielle Emanuel

CANTON, Mass. — It’s lunch break and there’s a wheelchair traffic jam in the school hallway.

Friendly shouts of “Beep! Beep!” and “You’re blocking traffic” interrupt chatter about one kid’s new backpack and another guy’s birthday plans.

It’s a typical school scene, except a bunch of the kids are using computers to talk and others breathe through ventilators.

Like students across the country, many of these kids are getting ready for graduation. It’s a bittersweet time for graduates of all stripes, but perhaps nowhere is it more bittersweet than here.

All of the 91 students in these hallways are also patients. When they graduate – as about a dozen will this year – they’re not only leaving their friends and teachers, they’re leaving the hospital they’ve called home for years, and in some cases, a decade or more.

The campus’ main entrance is on a rural road in Canton, where a flashing sign reads: The Massachusetts Hospital School.

Brian Devin, the CEO, says that when cars zip past drivers often “think it’s a school where they teach people to work in hospitals.”

Devin says it’s a fair assumption, but completely wrong. This facility is part pediatric hospital, part elementary and secondary school. It serves children with severe disabilities — muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, brain injuries — and is run jointly by the state Department of Public Health and the Department of Education.

Children as young as 6 or 7 can be admitted to the hospital and they often stay at this lakefront campus until the kid’s clock strikes 22 years old, when it’s time to graduate and it’s time to go, regardless of whether there is another alternative place to go.

A Non-Institutional Hospital

As the hallway traffic starts moving, the students wheel themselves out into the brisk spring air. They race down covered ramps toward horseback riding lessons, speech therapy sessions and wheelchair hockey practice.

Those white ramps create a web that connects all the brick buildings on this idyllic, 160-acre facility.

“The kids are all over the place. They are not always with staff — we don’t want them to always be with staff,” Devin says. “We want them to be with themselves and with other kids as much as possible. There is no real institutional flavor.”

The Massachusetts Hospital School’s ultimate goal is to cultivate as much independence as possible for these children. Continue reading

Mom’s Memo To Schools: Please, Make These Random Half-Days Stop

May I share with you the delights of my children’s April school schedule? They get out at 12:40 because of parent-teacher conferences on these days sprinkled through the month: Tues., April 1; Weds., April 9; Tues., April 29. Oh, yes, and just when you thought it was safe, one more on May 7. (Plus they’re off April 18-25 for spring vacation.)

That’s in addition to our new regular Friday early dismissals at 1:40. When we got word of that, one mother I know said to the superintendent, “You must really hate parents.”

I don’t think the administration hates us, but I do think that perhaps we haven’t spoken up loudly enough about the logistical stress these half-days create. And they’re common around the state, from year-round early-release Tuesdays in Newton to April half-Wednesdays in Westwood.

They’re an old tradition. Many of us remember the joys of occasional half days from our own school years. You know, back when our mothers were mostly housewives. Now, virtually all mothers work, and I venture to say that virtually all working parents wish that all our public schools provided universal, affordable after-school care.

(Photo: Rachel Zimmerman)

(Photo: Rachel Zimmerman)

Or at the very least, reliable after-school care on random half-days. At our school, a team of mothers has created a “half-day matinee,” gathering all the children who need looking after for a movie that runs until the normal 2:30 dismissal time. But their altruistic efforts are in danger of being overwhelmed by demand: More than 200 children have been coming to the movies this month, straining even their heroic volunteer powers.

“First-world problems,” you may say, and I’d agree but go a step further: This is specifically a first-world middle-class problem. Continue reading

Boston Study: What Higher Standardized Test Scores Don’t Mean

Students at Roxbury Prep Charter School, which is known for its high achievement test scores,  in 2011. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Students at Roxbury Prep Charter School, which is known for its high achievement test scores, in 2011. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The MIT researchers avoid loaded terms like intelligence, so let me be the blunt one and sum up a provocative new Boston-based study coming out soon in the leading psychology journal Psychological Science:

If you’re a kid who’s lucky enough to go to a school that boosts your performance on standardized tests like the MCAS, you’re scoring higher because you know more, but probably not because you’ve gotten smarter. And by smarter, I mean better at certain measurable cognitive skills that psychologists call “fluid intelligence” or “fluid reasoning” — like working memory and problem-solving in a novel situation.

MIT sums up the findings:

In a study of nearly 1,400 eighth-graders in the Boston public school system, the researchers found that some schools have successfully raised their students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). However, those schools had almost no effect on students’ performance on tests of fluid intelligence skills, such as working memory capacity, speed of information processing, and ability to solve abstract problems.

The researchers calculated how much of the variation in MCAS scores was due to the school that students attended. For MCAS scores in English, schools accounted for 24 percent of the variation, and they accounted for 34 percent of the math MCAS variation. However, the schools accounted for very little of the variation in fluid cognitive skills — less than 3 percent for all three skills combined.

Even stronger evidence came from a comparison of about 200 students who had entered a lottery for admittance to a handful of Boston’s oversubscribed charter schools, many of which achieve strong improvement in MCAS scores. The researchers found that students who were randomly selected to attend high-performing charter schools did significantly better on the math MCAS than those who were not chosen, but there was no corresponding increase in fluid intelligence scores.

It will be interesting to see how this study resonates in the eternally contentious discussion about standardized tests and the fraught practice of “teaching to the test.” To get a clearer sense of what the study says about testing — and what it doesn’t — I spoke with the paper’s senior author, MIT neuroscience professor John Gabrieli, of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Let’s begin with the ending: How would you sum up what this study found?

Our core findings were that which school a student attended did influence his or her test scores on statewide tests, but it did not appear to influence their fluid cognitive abilities; abilities such as how quickly you process novel information, how much information you can juggle in your mind, what people call ‘working memory,’ and how much you can apply novel, fluid reasoning to novel problems.

And what were the skills that it did affect?

They affected what psychologists call ‘crystallized knowledge,’ knowledge of vocabulary and language, knowledge of arithmetic and calculation, the kinds of things that we teach in schools and we want students to know.

So in lay language, what school you attend could affect how much you know, but not how smart you are? Continue reading

School Kids’ Yoga Class Is Not Religion, Judge Rules

Here’s a deep legal query: if school kids are instructed to do “criss-cross applesauce” — the seated, cross-legged position known to pretty much every six-year-old in America — can that possibly be construed as religious teaching?

Apparently not, said a California judge Monday, ruling that yoga instruction for children in an Encinitas public school does not constitute religious instruction. Plaintiffs, who objected to the school-based practice for their two children on religious grounds, had opted out of the program, a kid-friendly class in which some of the most pervasive yoga lingo, like Namaste, had already been excised.

papermoons/flickr

papermoons/flickr

Reuters reports:

[Judge John Meyer] also said the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious but distinct and separate from Ashtanga yoga.

“A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion,” he said…

The plaintiffs objected to eight-limbed tree posters with Sanskrit characters that they said were derived from Hindu beliefs, as well as to the use of the Namaste greeting in class and several yoga poses said to represent worship of Hindu deities.

But by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the Sanskrit and Namaste had been eliminated from the program, and poses had been renamed with “kid-friendly” descriptions, poses now called gorilla, turtle, peacock, big toe, telephone and other terms, according to testimony. The lotus pose, for example, is called criss cross apple sauce in Encinitas schools.

With childhood obesity a nation-wide emergency and with kids bouncing out of their seats due to cuts in recess programs and lack of physical activity during the school day, Continue reading

Report: Cutting School Junk Food Boosts Kids’ Health, Doesn’t Hurt School Budgets

(serdar/flickr)

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Improving school snacks is now officially a no-brainer.

A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that getting rid of junk food at school boosts kids’ health and doesn’t hurt schools financially. Even many snack food companies are on board.

“What kids eat in school matters. If you change the school environment, they will eat healthier,” said Jessica Donze Black director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, which produced the new report.

Snack food items should derive no more than 35 percent of their calories from either fat or sugar, and portion sizes should be limited to 100 calories for younger children and 180 calories for high schoolers, according to proposed new federal guidelines supported by the report.

What we offer kids affects what they eat today, and what they think will be acceptable to eat tomorrow, said former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, author of the 2009 book “The End of Overeating.”

“This is ultimately about changing what we want, but the way we do that is by changing our environment,” he said. “We don’t realize how much the environment affects our decision-making…It’s what we’ve put into our environment over the last 40 years that’s caused this [obesity] epidemic.” Continue reading

Khan: MIT As Hogwarts, With Magic, Strange Wonders And Love

I love that Sal Kahn, founder of the online education nonprofit, Khan Academy compared MIT to Hogwarts in his commencement address to 2012 graduates last week:

I always tell people that MIT is the closest thing to being Hogwarts — Harry Potter’s wizarding school — in real life.

The science and innovation that occurs here looks no different than pure magic to most of the world. The faculty here are the real-world McGonagalls — that’s you President Hockfield — and Dumbledores. There are secret tunnels and passages with strange wonders and creatures around every corner — some of whom may just finish their thesis this decade. The names of history’s great wizards surround us here in Killian Court — from Aristotle to Galileo, Newton to Darwin. They remind us that we have inherited an ancient art. One that, despite being vilified or suppressed by forces of ignorance throughout history, is the prime cause of human progress and well-being.

Also like Hogwarts, MIT brings young people from around the country and world who are a little bit off-the-charts in their potential for this “magic.” Some come from environments and communities that celebrated their gifts. Others had to actively hide their abilities and passions for fear of being ostracized and ridiculed. Students come to MIT from every religion, every ethnicity. Some from educated, affluent families, others from ones that live at or near poverty. But they — you, we — shared a common passion. Something that made us feel a little different. We sensed that MIT might be a place where there were others like us. Where we could challenge ourselves and develop our craft.

Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today Kids: Do Better In Math

(coffeelatte/flickr)

Children, especially girls, who are persistently obese starting in kindergarten score lower in elementary school math than their normal-weight peers, a new study, published in the journal Child Development found.

The Sacramento Bee reports:

A lack of social acceptance could account for the lower test scores, researchers said. Obese children who do not feel accepted by their peers often exhibit feelings of loneliness, sadness and anxiety that can hinder their academic performance.

Those feelings became even more apparent as the children progressed through school, according to the study.

“Children who have weight problems are not as well-received by their peers. That creates a condition or situation where developing social skills isn’t as easy,” said Sara Gable, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the department of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

For girls, but not for boys, difficulty developing social skills was related to obesity.

“The stigma of obesity and lack of conformity to standards of physical appearance – girls are perhaps … no pun intended, feeling the weight of that more,” Gable said… Continue reading

Mom Sues Pricey Preschool For Dashing 4-Year-Old’s Ivy League Chances

Did a private preschool kill a 4-year-old's shot at Harvard?

I love New York. I grew up there. But I thank God my kids didn’t have to go to preschool there (Cambridge is bad enough.) Read on to understand why (and then file this story under mental illness):

The mother of a 4-year-old is suing her kid’s $19K-a-year preschool for apparently ruining the child’s shot at getting into an Ivy League college, The New York Daily News reports.

How? The report suggests that by dumbing down the classroom with 2-and 3-year-olds in the mix, and offering play, not rigor, and a less-than-stimulating curriculum of blocks and shapes, the child might not get in to Harvard.

In court papers, Nicole Imprescia suggests York Avenue Preschool jeopardized little Lucia’s chances of getting into an elite private school or, one day, the Ivy League.

She’s demanding a refund of the $19,000 tuition and class-action status for other toddlers who weren’t properly prepped for the standardized test that can mean the difference between Dalton and – gasp! – public school. “This is about a theft where a business advertises as one thing and is actually another,” said Mathew Paulose, a lawyer for the outraged mom.

Impressed by the school’s pledge to ready its young students for the ERB – a test used for admission at top private schools – Imprescia enrolled her daughter at York in 2009. A month into this school year, she transferred the child out of the upper East Side center because she was forced to slum with 2-year-olds.

“Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all, but just one big playroom,” the suit says. The court papers implied the school could have damaged Lucia’s chances of getting into a top college, citing an article that identifies preschools as the first step to “the Ivy League.”

Study: Higher Education Linked To Lower Blood Pressure

A new report finds women with higher education degrees have lover blood pressure over a lifetime


By Marielle Segarra, WBUR intern

There are many ways to decrease your blood pressure. You can diet, exercise, quit smoking and reduce your stress. But Brown University researchers have found another path to lower blood pressure, particularly for women: getting an undergraduate or master’s degree.

In a study published Sunday in the open access journal BMC Public Health, researchers found that women who had 12 years or less of schooling (up to high school), measured 3 millimeters of mercury higher on blood pressure tests than women who attended school for at least 17 years. Men had a 2 mm difference.

Eric Loucks, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of medical science at Brown, says that on an individual level, the difference in blood pressure is not earth shattering. But if the overall education system shifted to reflect these findings, public health as a whole could improve significantly, he said.

In the paper, Loucks examined 4,000 patient records from the 30-year Framingham Offspring Study. The study participants were the children of members of the Framingham Heart Study, which found that smoking cigarettes causes heart disease, and elevated blood pressure can cause stroke.

Other studies have linked heart disease with lower education levels, but Loucks wondered if the connection was even stronger, and if the biological underpinnings of heart disease (blood pressure, in this case) were also affected by educational level.

Upon closer examination, the female participants had much more dramatic results. Continue reading