Weekly Roundup

School: When polled, most parents are against starting the school year before Labor Day. Yet many U.S. schools are pushing the start date back earlier and earlier into August. School officials claim the earlier start date is necessary in order to boost student achievement, however there is little research to support this notion.

Psychology: Commonly referred to as a “woman’s disease,” binge-eating is actually almost as common in men as it is in women (11% vs. 7.5%). But with literature and online communities devoted to a near-exclusive female perspective, it can be hard for male binge eaters to find the help they need.

Scholarship: Whereas, research has shown that for most psychological diagnoses in children and adults, psychotherapy is more effective than psychopharmacological treatment. And whereas, the positive results last longer. And whereas, the need for follow-up treatment is reduced. Therefore, the American Psychological Association has issued a resolution.

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On Teachers and Teaching

“Little Red Schoolhouse” – painting by Cheryl Bartley.

With fall in the air and the start of a new school year just days away, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of news stories about teachers and teaching. Some of the more interesting stories I’ve come across in recent days explore variations on the theme of what makes someone a good teacher as opposed to a bad teacher. As is usually the case in these types of discussions, a good teacher is defined as someone whose students’ test scores rise year after year; a bad teacher is defined as someone whose students’ test scores stagnate if not decline year after year. Depending on your worldview, this narrow representation of teaching (as well as what it means to be a student) may be disappointing, but this is the moment we live in – our educational Zeitgeist, as it were – and is what our education system has been focused on for years now. One way to add a bit of nuance to that discussion is to talk about how to help teachers become better at what they do, and how to encourage the best of them to stay in the profession rather than leave it prematurely.

With that in mind, I’ve picked three recent news stories that address the topic of effective teaching, either specifically or in the context of a larger discussion. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

First, from the New York Times a story about a project to videotape good teachers in a Washington, D.C. school district. Filmed in an upbeat documentary style, these short-ish videos are designed to highlight effective teaching strategies by the district’s top teachers. The goal is for other teachers to watch them in order to glean ideas for how to improve their own teaching style. You can view sample videos at the DCPS website.

I’ve picked one of my favorites to share here, featuring a pre-school teacher named Scott Harding. I like this one because (a) it is rare to see male teachers in the younger grades, so it’s great to watch his energy with the kids, (b) he is so full of enthusiasm and good ideas, and (c) he is very good at clearly explaining his goals and plans to the children, as well as keeping them engaged in “meaningful play” throughout the day. Skip ahead to the 5:00 mark to see a particularly adorable exchange between Mr. Harding and a boy in his class.

Next, from the Wall Street Journal a story about a unique program that pairs prospective teachers in urban Chicago schools with more experienced teachers who serve as mentors and guides. The somewhat controversial program is run by a local organization called the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL. AUSL works to turn around struggling urban schools with a structured program that includes a year-long intensive training for new teachers, who are then placed in schools with which AUSL has contracted their services. Some union leaders feel AUSL is given too much power when they partner with schools, a relationship structured by a contract that gives AUSL power to fire any and all staff – from janitors to administrators – it sees fit. On the other hand, the program’s individual success stories are impressive, and AUSL has the support of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Perhaps most important, however, it has the support of parents whose children have found success in AUSL-run schools.

A short video accompanying the article features a typical day-in-the-life for AUSL teacher Kathryn Filipinni who is at the Morton School for Excellence in Chicago. [I can’t embed the video, so just click on the image below to be taken to it directly on the WSJ website]

Last, from the Washington Post a story about a recent report that examines the crisis in teacher retention in public schools. Based on a three-year-long study conducted by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), their report is titled The Irreplaceables and explains why it is so hard for urban schools to hang on to their best teachers. In what reads as a study of institutional inertia and human resources neglect, the report illustrates that while it is relatively easy to identify the best teachers within a school district, and while principals generally know who their best teachers are, neither the district nor individual principals take proactive measures to make sure their best teachers don’t leave. From the Post story:

Particularly shocking was the finding that two-thirds of the best teachers were never asked to stay when they told principals of their plans to depart. “Our findings suggest that Irreplaceables usually leave for reasons that their school could have controlled,” the report says.

Here is a summary of the report, told in slides from the TNTP website:

The report also describes a U.S. education policy that for at least the past decade has focused on overall teacher retention, without discerning a difference between effective and ineffective teachers. This approach, known as the “widget effect,” treats teachers as interchangeable parts – one is just as good as another – rather than individuals with varying degrees of ability. Also troubling is the finding that while the popular belief is that ineffective teachers “self select” out of the profession, in reality about 75% of low performing teachers stay at the same school year after year, and 50% say they plan to continue teaching for at least another decade.

If you’d like a copy of The Irreplaceables, you can download the .pdf here, or request a hard copy by filling out this form on the TNTP website. It’s 52 pages long, but the excellent graphic design and clear presentation of data gives it more of a magazine feel, and less of a technical paper feel. Overall, a highly accessible piece of research designed for the professional and layperson alike.

Weekly Roundup

School: Some college students find that starting at a community college can help stave off massive student loan debt, while helping them transfer to a four year school later if they so choose.

Psychology: Procrastinators are actually very nice people who are kind of popular and viewed by others as being quite productive. But being a good procrastinator isn’t as easy as it might seem; it takes skills to procrastinate well. Here’s how.

Scholarship: Psychology research is biased towards finding statistical significance, which in turn significantly influences the process of publishing psychological research.

When Mandated Reporters Fail to Report

As part of the training for school psychologists, we are required to complete a unit on Mandating Reporting regulations for our state (in my case, Illinois). School psychology is among a group of professions that are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect; others in this category include teachers, doctors, clergy, camp counselors, nurses, and more. One of the important points about being a mandated reporter is that we simply report, we do not investigate. This came up in many forms during class discussions, and was emphasized in the state training program. If we suspect a child is being abused, we do not ask the child probing questions to try to get to the bottom of things or even attempt to determine whether or not there even was abuse; all of that is the job of the Department of Children and Family Services and they have employees who are trained in such matters. If we have a reasonable suspicion that something might have happened, we report it. This is an important distinction, because school psychologists work in a position of trust within the entire school community (including staff, parents, teachers, and, first and foremost of course, students) and it would be nearly impossible to maintain trust – let alone confidentiality – if we had to perform the roles of both confidant and detective/law enforcement. So in that sense, knowing the clear and straightforward requirement to report any sign of suspected abuse keeps it simple for us. So why, then, do mandated reporters sometimes fail to report?

Paddington Station Preschool.

I recently read about a preschool in Denver, Colorado (my ex home-state) that ran into trouble when one of their teachers was accused of inappropriate behavior with his students. There is no evidence yet that actual molestation took place, but a journal has been discovered in which the teacher documented in minute detail every physical interaction he initiated with his students including sitting on laps, kissing cheeks, and holding waists. Also included were his comments about which girls did not outwardly react to his advances, and which girls had, in his words, “obviously been coached” to reject touching by non-family members. During a detention hearing this week, prosecutors revealed that a family had approached the Paddington Station Preschool’s director in 2001 with concerns that their three year old daughter told them she had been touched inappropriately by this teacher. At the time, the school’s director did not report the parents’ concerns to any outside officials (such as police or social workers). In fact, the school has no record that the meeting ever took place.

Perhaps predictably, the fallout from both the director’s mistake 10 years ago, and the recent accusations against the teacher, have been devastating. The parents who made the original report pulled their children from the daycare after they were led to believe the teacher would be fired yet nothing happened. The school’s director was recently forced out of her position. The founder and head of the school stepped down from her position last week, and removed herself from the school’s three-member board. Dozens of children may have endured uncomfortable and confusing encounters with their teacher that they were unable to explain. Parents are angry, confused, and frustrated, overflowing the courtroom and having to sit through graphic testimony about child pornography allegedly discovered on the teacher’s computer. In other words, chaos and heartbreak for this school’s close-knit community.

Could all of this been prevented had the Paddington Preschool’s director fulfilled her duty as a mandated reporter 10 years ago? It is impossible to know for sure. But it is reasonable to suspect that the situation might not have resulted in this difficult moment if the director had simply followed the law without delay (not to mention that her failure to report in essence bestowed upon the teacher an intervening 10 year period during which he was in daily, direct contact with vulnerable children at the school, while at home he continued to amass an extensive – over 4,000 images – collection of child erotica and pornography).

One clue about why otherwise responsible professionals might fail to report suspected child abuse can be found in a 2008 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Titled “Translating Child Abuse Research Into Action” (Flaherty, Sege & Hurley, 2008), the study revealed that a little more than 1 in 4 pediatricians failed to report suspected abuse, even if they thought a child’s injuries were the result of abuse. Study results showed that,

“In 27 percent of cases where a doctor believed a child’s injury was “likely” or “very likely” the result of abuse, that doctor did not report it…The doctors and physicians’ assistants documented each injury themselves, referenced the likelihood of its being the result of abuse and noted what, if any, action the doctors took.”

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Emalee Flaherty of Northwestern University in Chicago is quoted as saying that,

“…doctors in her experience often have difficulty distinguishing whether an injury is the result of abuse. Many children’s injuries fall in a gray area between an accident and abuse, and many doctors don’t realize they don’t have to be certain about abuse to report their suspicions.”

When asked why they did not report suspected abuse, the pediatricians gave variations on the following reasons:

  1. They were not certain abuse had occurred.
  2. They had had a previous negative experience with a child protective services agency (CPS).
  3. They doubted whether CPS did enough to protect children from harm.

In fact, in a previous study conducted in 1998, half of Chicago-area physicians polled indicated they were less willing to report suspected abuse based on previous experiences with CPS (Flaherty et al., 2000). In fact, two separate studies indicate that Chicago-area physicians reported cases in which a child they had brought to the attention of CPS had suffered further abuse due to CPS’ failure to respond in a timely manner (Flaherty et al., 2006; Flaherty et al., 2008). I really can’t speak to the alleged failures of the Chicago CPS. The 2008 study offers a few explanations for items #2 and #3 on the above list, including miscommunication between physicians and CPS and a misunderstanding on the part of physicians about CPS’ role and duties. Of course chronic underfunding for agencies such as CPS is mentioned.

But with regards to item #1 on the list, that may be where there is the most confusion, but also where there needs to be the most clarity for mandated reporters. When the director of the Paddington Preschool failed to report the parents’ suspicions, perhaps she was acting out a sense of extreme prudence. Not wanting to make a mountain out of a mole hill, so to speak. But the point is that it wasn’t up to her to determine whether it was a mole hill, or whether there was in a fact a mountain standing right in front of her. Her job was to report, and let the appropriate agency investigate. As future school psychologists, it is good to be reminded of one of the more difficult aspects of our job, especially when that reminder comes from real-world examples in which real people are affected.

Selective Mutism in Children

Persona.

As some of you know, the path that led me to school psychology has not been a straight one. One of the detours I took was going to film school and getting a degree in film studies. This occurred, as my 20-something classmates would say, “back in the day.” As a result, I know a bit about film and film history, and continue to be a life-long film aficionado. So I took note when Sight & Sound magazine recently released their 2012 list of the top 50 films of all time (the list is updated every 10 years). There has been some controversy over the fact that Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo displaced Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane for the #1 slot. Of course, you always expect controversy when a Top-xyz List is released; that’s what makes lists fun and interesting. But as I reviewed past Sight & Sound Top 10 lists, I noticed that Ingmar Bergman’s Persona used to be in the Top 10 (only once, in 1972; it’s now #17 on the list).

Liv Ullmann plays an actress who becomes mute during a performance.

Being reminded of Persona, I got to thinking about a presentation I saw last semester by a woman who had selective mutism (SM) as a child. SM is defined as, “a psychiatric disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech is unable to speak in given situations or to specific people.” If you haven’t seen Persona, it’s about an actress who suddenly becomes mute during a theatrical performance. The film chronicles the actress’ “treatment” at a remote beach cottage with a nurse who begins to meld identities with her. It’s a powerful film, and touches on a variety of heavy topics. For one, the actress’ version of selective mutism seems partly induced by her inability to, as film critic Lloyd Michaels puts it, “respond authentically to large catastrophes” (e.g. the Holocaust or the Vietnam war). In a way, you could say her inability to speak is a result of an existential dilemma. In that sense, the actress could not technically be said to have SM, as the condition is usually a result of shyness, social anxiety, or some combination of the two. But the film still provides a nice jumping off point for a discussion of SM. For one thing, the quote at the beginning of this post is from Persona. It’s from a letter the actress’ husband writes in order to try to persuade her to return home.

Anxiety is speculated to be the root cause of selective mutism, and it usually affects children under the age of five. While the exact cause is unknown, some children with the condition also have a form of extreme social phobia. The presenter I saw talked about her experiences with SM, which affected her during her grade school years. One thing that helped her get better was her relationship with a caring school psychologist. It took this woman a few years to overcome it, but now she has such valuable insights to share with me and my colleagues. Her talk was interesting and inspiring, and provided a lot of information about a topic I previously had never heard of.

As I researched selective mutism afterwards, I came across some interesting facts:

  • The symptoms must be present for at least a month, and not including the first month of school, in order to be diagnosed.
  • Cultural issues may play a role, such as children who have recently moved here from another country and are not yet comfortable speaking English.
  • The condition used to be referred to as “elective mutism,” but the name was changed because it implied that people with the condition chose not to speak, when the reality is that they do wish to speak in public situations but cannot. The name was changed to selective mutism in 1994.
  • Selective mutism is estimated to affect 1 in 1,000 people (.1%), although this number is uncertain because of inconsistent diagnoses.
  • Some children with SM may be mistakenly assumed to have Attention Deficit Disorder, inattentive type. Some of the symptoms/behaviors are similar, such as the child appearing “spaced out” and uninterested in her surroundings. These children can also be distracted by their own anxiety, causing further misunderstandings about the true nature of their condition.
  • Children with selective mutism may speak freely at home or in other situations, but not at all in a particular setting, such as school.
  • Approximately 20-30% of children with selective mutism also have an underlying speech or language disorder which exacerbates their anxiety in situations in which they are expected to speak.
  • The condition does not necessarily improve with age. Unless treated early, selective mutism can lead to further anxiety, chronic depression and additional social-emotional problems.

If you work with children, or are interested in finding out more about selective mutism, here are some helpful links:

  1. Selective Mutism – Wikipedia.
  2. Selective Mutism – U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  3. Selectivemutism.org – Selective Mutism Group (SMG); part of Child Anxiety Network.
  4. Selective Mutism – American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
  5. Selectivemutismfoundation.org – Non-profit public service organization.
  6. Selectivemutismcenter.org – “A comprehensive center for families and children that addresses the needs of the child/teen with Selective Mutism.”

Finally, information about the annual SMG conference can be found here, or by clicking the image below. The 2012 conference takes place on October 27th, and will be held in Orlando, FL.

The Art of Understanding the Human Brain

Neurons in a crab’s brain.

As you probably already know, brain scans have become all the rage in recent years. Scientists in a variety of fields – including psychology, sociology, behavioral finance and neuroscience – have turned to fMRI scans in an attempt to uncover the secrets of human motivation and behavior. I maintain a certain amount of skepticism about whether or not all of these scans will ultimately amount to anything more than descriptive data gathering (e.g., “When a person thinks about a dollar, this part of the brain lights up! And when they think about giving away that dollar, this other part of the brain lights up!”). Nevertheless, some of the work being done seems promising, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. But, there is no doubt that the brain (human or otherwise) is a miraculous thing, and one artist/Ph.D. has been exploring its hidden beauty for years.

Developing human cerebral cortex at 15 weeks.

Greg Dunn has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is also a visual artist who merges art and science in his Japanese-style paintings of neurons and other brain structures. He employs traditional pan-Asian ink drawing styles, in which capturing the unseen “essence” of the subject is the ultimate goal. Mr. Dunn was interviewed by the online magazine The Beautiful Brain last year, and said this about his work:

“Neural forms and Asian painting styles collide in a completely natural way, and I am so fortunate that I found this out for myself because it has led to a very satisfying career as an artist/scientist. Neural forms are naturally elegant and spontaneous, characteristics that also describe the more traditional forms of Asian sumi-e painting- branches, grasses, etc.  All that is required to connect the dots is the realization that you need to crank down your awareness to the micron scale to see that nature has very similar forms across different scales of magnitude.  The branching form of a dendrite is nearly identical to the form of a branching tree, a series of cracks in the pavement, the movement of rivers and streams as viewed from space, or a lightning bolt.”

Hippocampus.

He was also asked whether or not he believes the human brain will ever understand itself, and Mr. Dunn said this:

“There are some astounding geniuses out there that are making huge progress for us all.  But one day, when imaging technology, data acquisition, supercomputing, etc reach the point when some of the really deep questions can be answered, I’m not sure how a human being can really grasp the avalanche of data.  Even if a brain could fully understand itself, it seems impossible to me that it would be through the mediums of graphs, tables, connectivity diagrams, and all of that that would be the inevitable output.  I’m personally not interested in that these days anyway.  For me, it seems that a more relevant and rewarding approach of self discovery lies in personally developing an intuitive approach to understanding the brain.  To understand my own brain I seriously practice meditation, the science of observing the mind.”

So I guess I’m not the only one who has doubts. I consider myself in good company, however, since from the beginning of human history artists have been the ones to offer most of our profound insights into human nature; those moments that make you light up with the glow of self-recognition as a card-carrying member of the human race.

Pyramidal neurons.

Mr. Dunn sells prints of his work on his website, as well as scrolls and gold leaf images. From what I gather, it looks like a lot of his work hangs in scientific labs, universities and medical centers around the country. What do you think? Could you see hanging one of these in your home? I think I could.