Saturday, February 1, 2014

Helping Children Find their Voice

Being a school psychologist in a public school has taken me on journeys of discovery that I never dreamt when I began decades ago.   One destination was learning about Selective Mutism.  It is a fairly rare disorder, about 1 in one thousand, characterized by speaking freely and comfortably in some situations, but remaining mute (sometimes looking frozen) in other situations and with certain people.  It has many aspects of a phobia, but you can’t do flooding therapy;  you can’t make someone talk until their anxiety subsides.  Sometimes children also have generalized social anxiety, sometimes not.  While helping those children and the time comes that a child finally talks to a teacher—it feels wonderful, a magical moment!  It has led me to become a state coordinator for the Selective Mutism Group of the Child Anxiety Network.  (a non-profit:  information at )             

Through my work with many families, I have developed tools that help teachers reach out to students and help therapists treat children in the school setting.  I am offering them here

If you know a teacher or family struggling with behavior that looks something like Selective Mutism, please direct them to both the above URLs.  For just a few dollars they can have some of the materials that have assisted me in my work with these amazing kids.  One of my favorite moments was with a teacher who was asking about a child that we were treating together, who was now talking in class.  She asked me,  “Now he’s calling out his answers without raising his hand.  Do I say something to him?”   My answer is , “Yes, treat him like any other student in your class!”  That was our goal and his mother’s dream.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

She-Ra, Princess of CSAP

She-Ra was the name I chose for my character when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons with my young sons (apologies to the He-Man franchise).  It is also my after-school staff volleyball name, and my nickname for my role as School CSAP coordinator.  CSAP stands for Colorado State Assessment Program.  Now it is called TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program), as it is transitioning to the national standards.  I was in charge of my school’s CSAP testing for many years, hence the title of this article.  Since I was trained as a school psychologist to give cognitive assessments, I appreciate the value of a reliable, valid, well-standardized test.  I like making decisions based on data, and CSAP is a well-designed test.  For the student who is plus or minus one to two grade levels , the CSAP is a good measure of factual knowledge and some associative reasoning.  For students who are more than two grade levels below their current grade placement, the test is a nightmare.

There is a category for the proctor to mark on the back of the test booklet called “Code #7, Extreme Frustration.”  You are required to place the test in front of a student who can’t read it and watch him/her struggle until he/she is in tears, mad, dejected, and feeling defective.  Once he/she refuses to continue, you can then take the test away.  Then I fill in the “Extreme Frustration” bubble and the student gets to read a book (preferably at his/her reading level) until the other students are finished.  The student must repeat this performance with each subject area booklet.  From experience, I can tell you that it does not get any easier for the student. Some do get hardened and randomly fill in bubbles and copy random words. It is a bad two weeks in the education of that child.

There is an alternative form of the test, but in Colorado you have to be a non-reader to qualify for it.  However, if you are an immigrant from a non-English speaking country and have been in the USA for at least one year, you don’t qualify for the alternate test, regardless of how poor your English reading skills are, and you are required to take the regular grade level test.  During TCAP, I go through a box of tissues, some tissues for the students, and some for me. To add insult to injury, the test results provide no information that you did not already know before putting the student through this excruciating exercise.

A student might qualify to have a subject test read aloud (other than the reading test).  However, this presumes that a student’s oral comprehension is high enough to benefit from it.

I have no problem telling a student that he or she is behind and is going to have to work extra hard and put in extra time. I tell them that they can’t give up if they want to catch up. However, for two weeks a year, these students get to repeatedly practice giving up.

On a positive note, because I like to give my students every advantage possible, I review basic test-taking skills with them each year.  There is an “unspoken strategy” for approaching multiple choice questions and other constructed responses.  I start by telling the students that the point of the test is to answer the questions.  The goal is not to give five examples when they ask for two, and it is not to make perfect circles in the bubbles.  We also talk about eliminating choices and making educated guesses.  If you are interested in reviewing test-taking strategies with your students, see my PowerPoint lesson  Review Test-taking Strategies by clicking here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Upside

Perhaps I am deluding myself, but, as my blog name suggests, I believe that there is an upside to most events and to many personality characteristics as well.  Let’s say, for example, a child is stubborn – this child will not be swayed by peer pressure.  Or what if a child is disorganized?  I have found such children to be creative and adaptable.  I saw this with a disorganized child when I conducted my counseling sessions for Binder Doctor.  During these sessions, I teach elementary students to clean, repair, and organize binders, starting with their own.  Then they “practice” as Binder Doctors on other students’ binders during a “Binder Doctor Clinic”.  One student-doctor cut beautiful shapes out of colorful duct tape (used to repair binders) and offered a binder decorating service.  Another offered a “scented desk” by using a cotton ball drenched in fragrance – perfume probably borrowed from her mother’s dresser.  A male Binder Doctor admired that idea and used an Axe sample in his desk. The day that it wafted through the entire 4th and 5th grade wing was memorable.  My favorite creation was a marketing idea from a recent Binder Doctor graduate.  He suggested that we would get more business by changing the name of it to Pimp my Binder.  If you are interested in a small group intervention for reluctant organizers, check out Pimp my Binder – I mean Binder Doctor –  here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

He has a Dream: in honor of Martin Luther King Day

*Larry is one of my favorite students. Big and smart, he saw the world in a slightly different way. He started medication for ADHD in kindergarten and it worked wonders for his attention and his ability to keep from stroking the tresses of every long-haired girl in class.  When the principal praised his improved behavior, this five year old replied, “Thanks, I’m going to put you in my band.  What instrument do you play?  You can’t play the drums.  I’m playing the drums.”

Now he is in the fourth grade.  The stimulant dosage was slowly increased.  His academics were above grade level, but social skills did not follow.  As the school psychologist, he spent some time each week working with me.  He was the only student on Ritalin that continued to be significantly overweight.  He developed what appeared to be a tic. He licked his lips and rubbed his shoulder against his cheek until the skin was raw and inflamed. We had him use creams, a chew bracelet (lost and found on a regular basis), behavior plans and rewards.  I wondered if the medication was a contributing factor. Then came the week the red scabs faded to pink and then his skin returned to normal. 

I spoke with his mom.   “What happened, what worked?” 

“It’s the Marines,” she said. 


She continued. “Larry is fascinated with the military, especially the Marines.  He’d like to be a Marine some day.  I have a male family friend, Stan, who is spending time with Larry, and Stan told him that Marines don’t act like that and that he had a bad habit he needed to break.  Stan also told him that his mom was like his commanding officer, and he had to speak more respectfully to her.” 

“Wow,” I said.  “How nice that Larry formed a friendship with a Marine.” 

“No,” she replied.  “My friend’s not a Marine.  He just used that analogy because he knew that Larry wanted to be one.  Frankly, I’m not thrilled.  I don’t like the thought of Larry carrying a gun.”

I’m thinking that he will play the drums in a Marine marching band. 

So, after all those “interventions”, this is what works.  Local male bonding (His dad lives far away.), and a love of the Marines.  His mom and I will be talking about how to use this interest and their friend to promote more social behavior.  Time to put aside my schedules of reinforcement, my arm chair hypotheses, and pause to appreciate the power of friendship and having a dream.

*This is a pseudonym.  In any comments, please keep identifying information confidential.