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New Ways to Visualize Math

Have you heard of Vi Hart?  She has a whole website where she doodles — and shows mathematical patterns that come out with doodling and playing.  Not arithmetic.  But beautiful, complex, stunningly cool math.  

 This particular video has given my child great things to draw when waiting in a restaurant.


They say, actually, that the best way to help your child succeed in math is to make math part of their everyday life — and not just the drudgy part, either.  According to this list, playing math games and just general games with numbers and concepts is just as important – if not more so – than all of those flashcards. 

I like that.


Eaton Arrowsmith School Provides Brain Exercises with Learning

I talk with many other moms on email. One of them just sent me a link to a the Eaton Arrowsmith School in Toronto, together with the comment that she’d love to see a school like this started here in the Silicon Valley.  I looked at the school and got very excited.

From their website:

The Arrowsmith Program is founded on neuroscience research and 30 years of experience demonstrating that it is possible for students to strengthen the weak cognitive capacities underlying their learning dysfunctions through a program of specific cognitive exercises.

How does it work?  It’s extremely pragmatic.  First, they give each child comprehensive testing to determine the brain’s strengths and weaknesses. Then they give the child targeted physical and cognitive exercises.  This approach works very well. It’s backed by research.  And frankly, you can do this at home as well.

The Arrowsmith Program’s identification of learning dysfunctions and their philosophy is derived from the work of neuropsychologist A.R. Luria.

Luria concluded that complex cognitive activities, such as reading, writing and mathematics, require the interaction of several areas of the brain and that each individual brain area has a specific role to play. If one brain area used in a learning activity is impaired, the performance of that learning activity will be impaired in a way particular to the contribution of the weaker brain area.

The Arrowsmith Program philosophy is that affected cognitive areas can be improved through strenuous cognitive exercises, resulting in increased cognitive capacities and strengthened learning abilities. When the deficient area is improved, the individual’s ability to perform complex tasks such as reading or writing also improves.

In work carried on since 1978, the school’s research has identified 19 specific learning dysfunctions which can be addressed by the Arrowsmith Program’s methods, including such everyday problems as difficulty with talking and thinking simultaneously, retaining oral information or instructions, problem solving and mental arithmetic.

The Arrowsmith Program’s technique is discussed in their methodology page:

Each student in the Arrowsmith Program has his or her specific schedule of tasks and exercises to be completed during the course of a day at Arrowsmith School. The exercises for each student differ depending upon the dysfunctions requiring treatment and each exercise stimulates specific cognitive areas to improve the area of weakness.

Each exercise has been designed to target a specific area of learning difficulty and each student’s program is tailored for that student’s particular needs. These include written, visual, auditory and computer exercises.

In one instance, a student with an inability to distinguish between similar sounds, such as “hear” and “fear” will be taught to listen to speech sounds drawn from other languages until he/she is able to accurately hear and reproduce the sounds. Repeated practice strengthens the cognitive capacity to hear and differentiate English speech sounds.

Here are other schools who have implemented the Arrowsmith Program approach and here’s full information on implementing the Arrowsmith Program in your own school.

I’m just curious as to why I’m just hearing about this school and their approach?  And why nobody in the public school system, including those educators responsible for dealing with children who have learning disabilities and focus disorders, has ever heard of this approach or these techniques?  Particularly the part of the equation that says:  “If your child has ADHD, they can come to this school and do brain exercises as an acceptable approach to helping them.”

Let’s start talking about these things.  Parents, by definition, know how to roll up our sleeves and get dirty if it’s going to help our kids.  There is a huge amount of useful information out there that we can use to immediately improve our children’s lives and their education.  Let’s start identifying it, putting it in one place, and directing our experts toward it.

Study Saying 10% of Kids Have ADHD: How Valid Is It?

recent study said that, as of 2007,  up to 10% of US children have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives.  That’s up 23% from 2003.   That’s  5.4 million kids. And two-thirds of those kids are currently taking drugs to treat it.

It’s become one of the looming questions of our time: what on earth is going on with our kids?

How Valid is the 10% Number?
Let’s start with that new study.  There are way too many numbers about ADHD bandied around in the media, and as consumers, we don’t always look at the numbers with a critical eye. We don’t have time, and we don’t have energy.  The new report has quite a few limitations, which are clearly called out in the report itself but not noted in any media treatment of the attention-holding numbers:

  • “First, ADHD status was based on parental report, requiring that the parent correctly recall a past or current ADHD diagnosis and make a judgment as to the disorder’s severity.
  • Second, current ADHD, which might have incurred less recall bias, was not added to the survey until 2007, making it impossible to compare current ADHD prevalence across time using these data.
  • Third, comparing estimates of ADHD medication treatment across time also is problematic, because questions about ADHD medication treatment were asked of different subgroups (ever diagnosed in 2003 versus only current ADHD in 2007) across the two surveys.
  • Fourth, the survey sample did not include families without landline telephones or those who elected not to participate; however, noncoverage and nonresponse bias was reduced through sampling weight adjustments.
  • Finally, the annual rate increases noted in this report represent an average for the 4-year period between surveys rather than observed annual rate increases because annual data were not available.”

OK.  But let’s add some more limitations.  Here’s another excerpt:

  • In both 2003 and 2007, parents were asked whether or not a doctor or other health-care provider had ever told them that their child had “attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactive disorder, that is, ADD or ADHD.”

I wonder what “other health care provider” means?  In our case, we talked with some counselors and other professionals who were pretty much idiots.  I particularly liked the one who said “Your kid is angry and unfocused. It might be Asperger’s.”  (By the way,  one integral characteristic  necessary for an Asperger’s diagnosis is FOCUS.  And since when do you just toss that out after a one-hour school observation and a one hour office meeting?)  When I asked her if it might be sensory integration issues instead, she said “Oh, I don’t know anything about that.” (And no, my child doesn’t have Asperger’s.)

The thing that bothers me is that the media is now taking this number and running with it, creating a diagnostic vortex.  Here’s what I want to know in the next study:

  • How many children are currently diagnosed with ADHD?
  • Who diagnosed the children?  What was the average time spent testing them?
  • What other issues do these children have?  Do they all have sensory problems?  What percentage are dyslexic?
  • What is the medication breakdown for the children?
  • What is the association of each doctor with the type of medication given to that child?
  • What percentage are receiving behavioral therapy?
  • What about other therapies, such as social skills help?
  • What is the age of these children relative to other children in their grade?
  • How long has the child been diagnosed and has been receiving meds?

I look forward to hearing more specifics, as we take a good, hard look at ADHD children and their treatment.

What Causes ADHD? Or Is That The Wrong Question?

If you pull back and take a 10,000-foot view at the ADHD situation, you get an idea of how many different types of practitioners are carefully gathering data and creating their own ideas about what causes ADHD.  But there are so many definitive claims flying around (diet! exercise! magnesium! smoking! video games! genetics!) that sometimes it feels a bit like the blind men and the elephant.  

  • Some studies show that ADHD is related to cigarette and alcohol consumption during pregnancy or lead.
  • Many practitioners and parents feel that ADHD symptoms are caused by food additives and sugar. Some studies roundly refute this. 
  • Other doctors feel that food sensitivities to things like gluten could cause ADHD.   Or allergies and leaky gut syndrome.
  • Genetic influence: studies indicate that 25% of close relatives in families of ADHD children also have ADHD.  (ADHD rates in the general population is 5%.)  Twin studies also show a genetic influence. Another study shows that if there's a genetic influence and smoking, ADHD incidence is much higher.
  • And finally, some children's brains just mature slower, or have problems with different parts maturing slower than others (e.g. sensory integration)

The list goes on and on.   Reminds me of a certain Monty Python witch scene.  It's also very clear that, at the top level, there is no answer for what causes ADHD.  And not only that – nobody knows which medical "department" owns the definition.  Is it psych? Is it neurology? allergy? Is it occupational therapy?  Who puts it all together for the consumer-parent?

Actually, ADHD Symptoms Can Be Caused By Various Things
Incidentally, here are 50 conditions that mimic ADHD, including the following:

  • Hypoglycemia
  • Allergies
  • Learning disabilities
  • Hyper/hypothyrodism
  • Hearing or vision problems
  • Mild to high lead levels
  • Genetic disorder
  • B vitamin deficiencies
  • Tourette's syndrome
  • Sensory integration issues
  • Early-onset diabetes
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Central auditory processing disorder (CAPD)
  • Gifted children
  • Emotional problems

This particular list is a bit extreme, but it's still true that many of the manifestations of ADHD can be caused by more than one problem.  Why?  Because they are symptoms, not a condition.

How is ADHD Diagnosed, Anyway?
 The ADHD diagnosis is subjective:  it is based upon judgment.  Whose?  The teacher fills in a questionnaire, the parent fills in a questionnaire, and the doctor sees the child.  Some doctors view children in the classroom, but most do not.  Sometimes the doctor spends one hour with the child, and sometimes, they spend several.  

  • Teachers are not trained in how to judge ADHD, or to determine what is "too" unfocused (for example)  Also, there's no way to factor in a teacher's experience, their potential dislike of squirmy children (for example), their training, size of the class, or the techniques they have tried.
  • Parents are not trained on how to judge ADHD and many cannot effectively compare their child's behavior to the norm.
  • It's a known fact that children behave very differently in a doctor's office – surrounded by focused adults – than they do in a first grade class, surrounded by lots of little peers.

Many ADHD information sites now provide information pages for parents on how to diagnose ADHD.  This particular page stresses ruling out other causes first, and walks parents through a proper diagnosis.

But once a child has been diagnosed as ADHD, the wheels of medical protocol start turning, and the diagnosis is treated as though it was correct.   "Standard" students abuse Ritalin in high school now so that they can focus better.  What's the metric for determining whether or not, ultimately, an ADHD diagnosis is correct?  The child is less trouble in school?  

What Questions Should We Be Asking?
We do not know what causes ADHD.  Identifying symptoms is very different from identifying a cause for those symptoms.  And right now, even though medications can ameliorate those symptoms, we're just not done.  Especially since studies also show that you should always use ADHD meds in conjunction with behavioral therapy, and other studies show that the effectiveness of ADHD meds wanes in three to four years.

Here are some questions we should be asking:

  • Can we separate out the components of ADHD and use therapies to address them separately?  For example, I understand that twitchiness and inability to sit still can be directly attributed to proprioceptive problems.  Has anybody studied children who have gone through OT to fix proprioceptive problems to determine if they are all still considered ADHD?
  • Is there a way to determine, identify, and quantify the severity of the ADHD/ADD symptoms in a standard fashion?
  • How has the "One Child Left Behind" push to start our children doing academic work earlier and earlier affected the number of children identified with ADHD?
  • If behavioral therapy is mandated at the same time as medication, why isn't it easier to identify and receive?  What type of behavioral therapy is most effective for children with ADHD?  Does it work without medicatons?  How can parents easily location a respected behavioral therapist in their area, or learn how to use behavioral techniques at home?

Right now we're in a situation where a huge corporate lobbying entity (drug companies) has stepped forward and offered a simple solution to the ADHD issue.  Unfortunately, it seems that many other approaches have fallen by the wayside as a result. Surely, things like behavioral therapy, movement therapy, auditory therapy, and so forth are more hands-on and more difficult to implement, but a big portion of that is because none of these approaches are supported or facilitated in any way.  There's no large lobbying entity, for example, for OT. 

A stunning number of people debating the "cause of ADHD" debate are receiving money from their involvement with the ADHD meal train.  It's time that parents start informing themselves about the various ways to help their child grow past ADHD symptoms, rather than just temporarily making them disappear.  I, for one, cannot accept that all of a sudden five million children have a lifelong need for drugs and that there is absolutely no other option.  Children grow too fast and the brain is too plastic.  We have only started on this journey.

Smart People with Limited Working Memory

Here's a wonderful blog post from Dr. Eide on how she, herself, (or he. not sure which one!) has a limited working memory.  Many people have particular gifts or limitations "under their hoods."  We haven't really thought about it; we just naturally compensate.  But when you're working with children, trying to teach them how to use their particular type of brain, you start paying attention.  It's nice to get reinforcement from Dr. Eide saying that:

"It's possible to survive and thrive even with itsy bitsy working memory spans."

Dr. Eide writes about observations she has made about people having success,  albeit with a limited working memory:

  • They move around, not sitting anywhere (physically or intellectually) for any length of time.
  • Their long-term memory is strong.
  • Often, they are strong inductive or bottom-up learners
  • They are strong interest-based learners.

Furthermore, she talks about how the low working memory/ADD/inductive learner has what's called diffuse attention, which is why it's often easiest for them to learn kinesthetically or from direct personal experience.

Here's another Eide blogpost, incidentally, talking about how people with higher creativity have diffuse attention.   Check this out:

"differences in this attentional style might account for why high IQ beyond a certain point doesn't correlate with higher levels of creative achievement (the threshold effect…e.g. that once one is beyond 120, higher numbers don't correlate with enhanced achievement). "

Fascinating. And such a relief to hear that all you really need is a 120 IQ! :-)

Things to Know About Limited Working Memory

Have you seen results from the study of three thousand children, saying that ten percent of those children suffered from poor working memory seriously affecting their learning?  Experts say that poor working memory (and lack of knowledge about how to work with it) is behind many school problems.  

Poor working memory is often associated with ADHD and dyslexia. Some experts, such as Rosemary Tannen, PhD,  psychologist and psychiatry professor at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, think that poor working memory might actually be responsible for some of the symptoms of ADHD:

"It could be that working-memory problems give rise to observable behavioral symptoms of ADHD: distractibility and also poor academic achievement," says Tannen.

But if you have poor working memory, you're not necessarily stuck with it. Several studies have shown that anybody, and ADHD or dyslexia children in particular, can benefit significantly from practicing to improve their poor working memory.  

Another fMRI study showed that computer training helped working memory of children with dyslexia as well.  And many products have been developed to help you practice your memory.

Sharpbrains.com has a free report on digital tools used to assess and treat working memory.

In closing, I'm looking for a product for my son that can help him exercise and develop his working memory.  We tried the Nintendo Brain Age program but have found that basically ANY of the Japanese programs are absolutely terrible for a child with developmental hiccups of any sort. Why?  In the Wii, for example, if you get a poor grade on something, the character becomes gradually more and more depressed until … I am not sure if I remember this correctly, but … I think they might actually BOO at you.

Now picture your dyslexic child doing the balance exercises on the Wii and failing because his brain doesn't do this stuff easily.  How would YOUR child react to being essentially told he's a loser by the software?  

For my American child, it was a no go.  And I have found that the jovial "you're SUCH a loser, dude!" approach from Japanese products is prohibitive.  So we'll be looking into other producers.  I'll let you know what I find.


Learning Basic Math: Addition and Multiplication

I spent hours and hours last year trying to teach my son multiplication.  Unfortunately, his teacher was no help at all. A bit sullen from having to encourage my unfocused child, she was also young and didn't have a big bag of tricks to use. Darn it.  So he ended third grade without knowing his multiplication tables cold.

It doesn't help that he's apparently got some form of dyslexia.  Memorizing is intensely difficult for him.  Apparently if your child is dyslexic or right-brained, it's terribly hard for them to memorize.

I know that children with different brains learn better when they are taught in a multisensory way.  I also know that context really matters.  But the fact is that there really IS no particular logic to learning basic math facts. You just need to do it.

I know that some people use flash cards with stories on them, to give context and multisensory stimulation to kids.  The stories all use the same pictures for the same number (e.g. "thirty" is "dirty"), and every equation has a real story linked to it.  There are at least three types of these story cards for sale on Amazon. Here's one.  I probably should buy them, but the thirty dollar price tag was a deal-breaker for me.

I started out by trying some of the videos on Youtube.  

Some of them are just inane.  Here's one, for example, one talking about right-brain math.  I have no idea why people would want to do this stuff.  I just want to get my child to know what 5 x 6 is! 

I finally found a series I liked. It was put together by a juvenile detention center in Portland, and they rap the times tables!  So in terms of multisensory, you see it and hear it.   (here are the eights).   I suspect that I liked this video series because the music was far better than hearing the chipmunks or whomever sing about fours, but … it didn't work.

I kept looking, and actually put together many math support tools on a web page called Learning Math.  We have tried several of them.  We have tried card games, verbal drilling, making multiplication charts… lots of things.

I hate to sound like a bit of a grouch here, but I'm pretty fed up with all of the "ooh, that doesn't work with your special type of child" advice that I read.  Nobody, including any of my son's teachers, has been able to tell me a particular technique that DOES work, so now I'm getting militant.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher gave us weekly drills. She played a record to test us every Friday. We had to answer the questions and we did that every single week of the year — until we all knew the answers. Painless and pretty darn relentless, if you think of it.  But olden-days relentless practice, in my humble opinion, doesn't get used NEARLY enough in our society.  

So this is our next step.  Relentless, day in, day out practice.  

That's why I was happy to find Calculadder, put together by a homeschooling mom.  Check it out.  Calculadder pre-thinks the tests to give to your child. Simple drills.  What a concept!   And it's apparently really easy to check the tests.  

I'll let you know how it goes, but for now, I really like the structure for my son AND for me.  I don't have to think – I can just do it.  And we do it every day (or whatever the rules are.)  Easy.

You can also buy all of their drill sets together on one CD and then just print what you need.


Are You Avoiding Plastic Bottles? Well Watch Out for Chicken Soup As Well.

Did you know that BPA, which was first developed as a synthetic estrogen (and is now used in plastic) is totally non-regulated?  Zero government safety standards limiting the amount of BPA in canned food. Manufacturers use 6 billion pounds of it a year.

That data is from the recent survey of BPA in US canned goods, published by the Environmental Working Group.   My son adores canned chicken soup and insists on having it every day in his lunch.  Well THAT's over.   Look at the statistics for how much BPA I'm exposing him to. :

  • Of all foods tested, chicken soup, infant formula, and ravioli had BPA levels of highest concern. Just one to three servings of foods with these concentrations could expose a woman or child to BPA at levels that caused serious adverse effects in animal tests.

  • For 1 in 10 cans of all food tested, and 1 in 3 cans of infant formula, a single serving contained enough BPA to expose a woman or infant to BPA levels more than 200 times the government's traditional safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals. The government typically mandates a 1,000- to 3,000-fold margin of safety between human exposures and levels found to harm lab animals, but these servings contained levels of BPA less than 5 times lower than doses that harmed lab animals.

  • Here's something else that's amazing.  Japan noted this problem and FIXED IT, between 1998 and 2003:

    Japanese scientists, government and industry have all taken a notable interest in BPA exposure and reduction strategies. Due to consumer concern about the toxic effects of BPA, Japanese industries voluntarily reduced the use of BPA dramatically between 1998 and 2003.

    In 1998 BPA concentrations ranging from 0.6-1 ug/L were detected in 12 of 20 canned drinks in Japan. According to the Japanese government, voluntary efforts by can manufactures reduced the migration level a goal of <5 ug/l. To do so they changed the inner surface of the cans from EXR coating to PET film lamination, or they used a EXR paint with much less BPA migration into food. Due to these BPA reduction and inactivation measures, the assessors noted that virtually no BPA is detected in canned foods and beverages now. Also in Japan, polycarbonate tableware in school lunches were largely replaced with the safer alternatives of polypropylene or melamine, ABS resin, polyethylene naphthalate and stainless steel (RCCRM 2005).

    The FDA was supposed to have ruled on BPA, but instead, they decided that the studies weren't valid enough and said that they would research it further.  And here's a summary of their suggestions for consumers.

    The consumerist movement started in the sixties and the Seventies were full of acts that provided legal protection for consumers, from the National Environmental Policy, Safe Drinking Water Act, to creation of EPA and OSHA.  And — by the way — it wasn't just Democrats passing those acts. This article gives a short summary of consumer action through the decades.

    If you read the article above, however, it becomes clear that today's consumers are more fragmented than they were in the seventies, and that corporations are smart and know how to lobby hard. Here's an article from Smart Mom where a mom looks a little closer at the players in the BPA situation.  

    Lets go back to the BPA report for a minute.  Some of the side effects from BPA are:

    Not to sound particularly wild-eyed here, but we're talking about our kids, and if you read the fine print in the directions for precautions to take, it really makes you ask why corporations aren't just fixing this.

    Some corporations are fixing this.  Six baby bottle manufacturers, after insisting for years that BPA posed no threat to the health of babies, have now voluntarily removed it from their products.  But the story behind THAT action is that these manufacturers only stopped after they were contacted by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal who requested that they stop.

    Consumers are talking about how the agencies that are supposed to be protecting us are not on top of pushing corporations to make their products less toxic.   This article talks about how FDA has reversed their previous "It's all good" position on BPA and is re-studying it, and gives a great overview of the current BPA situation.  

    Let's hope that consumer protection is strong enough to bump some of these entrenched chemicals out of circulation.

    Increasing Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD in US, 2003 & 2007

    Just in case you haven't seen it, here is a link to the biggest ADHD report around, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on 11 12, 2010.


    My comments later.

    Teaching Math Based upon Crafts

    The University of Colorado's Craft Technology Group works with the departments of Computer Science and Cognitive Science to interweave computation with craft materials.  They are particularly interested in "extending the landscape of children's craft activities."

    An interesting grant that they're working on right now is called "A Cultural Shift in Computer Science: Introducing Computation through E-Textiles"  Check out some of the papers and ideas generated by the group.  This is wonderful third or fourth (fifth?) generation computer access and it will open the doors of high tech to large amounts of young women and men interested in crafts.  Great stuff!

    In a recent Wearable Electronics Course, doctoral students led middle school students in crafting efforts, including using laser cutters to cut mathematical functions out of fabric. Here's what they made.

    Another interesting area to track is Mike and Ann Eisenberg's JavaGami software program, which lets students create custom  polyhedra, print folding-nets of their original shapes, and then cut, glued, and assemble the shapes. JavaGami projects have included a paper catapult, dueling wizards, and a jeweled jellyfish in a paper-based aquarium. Each of these crafts teach students about three-dimensional geometry.

    Here's a page of models that children can print and fold.