Author Archive

Make it Stick! How to remember anything

A few years ago, in an attempt to manage the volume of information I was expected to learn as a medical student, I read the book “Make it Stick”.  This book details the new science around how we convert short term memory to long term memory, and how to make studying super efficient.  It teaches you to cut down on the number of hours you’re studying while remembering more, scoring higher, and feeling more confident!  Check out this blog post from for more information.  As the perfect season for SAT preparation approaches, make it a point to incorporate these habits into your daily study techniques for optimum performance.  Happy studying!

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Every Kid Needs a Champion

Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, once heard a colleague say, “They don’t pay me to like the kids.” Her response: “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.'” A rousing call to educators to believe in their students and actually connect with them on a real, human, personal level.

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From NPR Education: Not All Fun And Games: New Guidelines Urge Schools To Rethink Recess

Teachers get caught up to speed on new recess guidelines.

What’s the best time for students to have recess? Before lunch, or after? What happens if it rains? If students are misbehaving, is it a good idea to punish them by making them sit out recess?

Those are just a few of the issues addressed in new guidelines designed to help schools have good recess. The recommendations come from a group called SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) America and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recess might seem simple — just open the doors and let the kids run free. But only eight states have policies that require it, according to last year’s Shape of the Nation report. And when researchers started looking, they found very little consistency or guidance about what makes recess effective.

The new guidelines, in two documents, offer educators a list of 19 evidence-based strategies and a template to show them what a good recess policy looks like.

Some of the suggestions seem obvious, like “promote a physically active environment” or “designate spaces for outdoor and indoor recess.” But there’s a point there. Without a designated indoor space, for example, schools might just cancel recess when it’s raining or snowing.

Oh, and the answers to those other questions above? Before lunch is better, the guidelines say, because recess can make kids hungry, and thus more likely to eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. And maybe they won’t throw food away uneaten. And they say recess should never be used as punishment, because it deprives students of physical activity — which can be a much-needed outlet.

“There’s a lot that has to be squeezed in[to] that time a student is in class,” says Michelle Carter, senior program manager at SHAPE who helped develop the guidelines. “I don’t think there’s a value placed in recess and physical activity.”

The guidelines seek to impress on schools that recess isn’t just downtime for educators or playtime for students. Research has shown that play helps students pay attention in class, prevents bullying and develops social and emotional learning.

An evolving process

One school that has tried to put these guidelines into practice is Thomasville Primary School in Thomasville, N.C. The researchers at SHAPE and the CDC used the pre-K through third grade school as a case study in developing the new policies.

Alyson Shoaf, the school’s active living wellness coordinator, says the guidelines helped make recess part of the curriculum. “There was really just nothing out there to help the school-level people support and implement this stuff,” she says.

Before the new policy, Shoaf says, recess was often withheld from students as punishment. Teachers might be looking at their phones and not paying attention. And sometimes, students got into arguments.

The new approach brought several key changes: creating special zones on the playground where teachers monitor students, scheduling teachers for recess duty and giving students access to the entire playground. The goals? More structure, more freedom and more fun.

Initially, Thomasville’s principal wasn’t too wild about the idea.

“Absolutely not,” said principal Angela Moore. When Shoaf first brought the idea to her, Moore says the program seemed too structured, and she thought it would force the students to play games that didn’t interest them.

But Moore says she changed her mind when she saw how much more active students were at recess. And how much more the teachers were involved. The numbers prove it was working: Schoolwide discipline referrals, she says, have declined — from more than 100 last school year, to 24 so far this year. If that pattern continues for the rest of the school year, Moore notes, it would be a roughly 50 percent drop.

Alyson Shoaf says some teachers needed extra convincing, too.

“This was a process. It did not just happen overnight,” Moore says. “And it’s still a process.”

No equipment? No problem

A concern at some schools — especially in low-income neighborhoods — might be whether a structured recess program would require a lot of expensive equipment. Not so, says Michelle Carter of SHAPE.

She’s a former physical education teacher, and she knows the struggle educators face when there are minimal resources.

“You don’t need equipment to have recess,” Carter says. “If you have a place for them to go and you have adult supervision and this plan in place, you can have recess for students.”

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What Every School Can Learn From Preschools



Anya Kamenetz, NPR

Listening. Sharing. Following directions. Making friends. Managing big emotions. Planning for the future.

A high-quality preschool program helps children develop in all these ways. But, a new report argues, such matters of the heart shouldn’t be left behind just as students are learning to tie their shoes.

Melissa Tooley and Laura Bornfreund of the New America Foundation write that schools should focus on these same skills, habits, attitudes, and mindsets with older kids. They say research shows they’re just as important as academics.

That bears repeating. Though public schools are currently held accountable for students’ scores in math and reading proficiency alone, evidence from both psychology and economics shows that a wide range of non-academic skills play a big role in determining success later in life.

The authors further argue that these attributes aren’t coded into DNA. They can be taught, or at least cultivated.

Sometimes this means curricula that explicitly cover social and emotional topics. Tools for Getting Along, from the University of Florida, has elementary school students doing lessons on how to solve social problems with classmates.

The Brainology curriculum teaches middle schoolers the basics of neuroscience, like the idea that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice. This is based on research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck that learning these facts can increase students’ motivation to work hard in class.

There is also evidence supporting whole-school approaches, like Responsive Classroom, which changes how teachers and administrators do discipline.

Tooley and Bornfreund argue educators should be paying more attention to how schools are building these skills at all ages, and even holding them accountable for it. “Our goal is to get state and federal policymakers thinking about how to encourage more emphasis on these skills,” says Tooley.

This doesn’t mean more high-stakes tests. When it comes to assessing individual students on attributes like grit, for example, “we’re not there yet,” Tooley tells NPR Ed.

Instead, she argues, the best tack is to hold entire schools accountable for creating atmospheres that instill or support these qualities. This can be done using tools like school climate surveys and sharing the information publicly.

It’s a good time to have this conversation. Most states, and the federal government, have expanded access to preschool in the last year. To evaluate those programs, they use a wide palette: classroom observation, self-reporting, and more.

This report suggests importing some of that more holistic approach to accountability into the higher grades. This doesn’t mean replacing an emphasis on academic rigor with something fuzzy and hard to quantify. “It’s a false choice,” says Tooley. Schools can and should be doing both.

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Kids’ Drawings Speak Volumes About Home

Will Huntsberry, NPR

When children reach 6 years old, their drawings matter.

Not because of those purple unicorns or pinstripe dragons but because of how kids sketch themselves and the very real people in their lives.

In a new study, researchers found that children who experienced chaos at home — including high levels of noise, excessive crowding, clutter and lack of structure — were more likely to draw themselves at a distance from their parents or much smaller in size relative to other figures.

In some cases, these kids drew themselves with drooping arms and indifferent or sad faces.

Their drawings were a reflection of this simple fact: Chaos at home meant parents were interacting with them less and, in many cases, the interactions that were happening were shorter and interrupted.

As a result, kids ended up with a depreciated sense of self, says Roger Mills-Koonce, who led the study with Bharathi Zvara at UNC-Chapel Hill. To be clear, Mills-Koonce did not blame parents or caretakers but called this kind of stress in the home a “function of poverty.”

Researchers sat the children down with markers and paper and asked them to draw their families. No coaching. No other instructions.

The drawing usually took 10 minutes or less.

Six years old is the “sweet spot” for such a test, says Mills-Koonce. Any younger, and a child can’t control her pencil. Any older, and she begins to internalize the concept of an ideal family, which could then influence her drawings.

Many psychologists use drawing tests as a subjective way of trying to understand children’s home lives. What’s new here is that Mills-Koonce and his team believe they’ve created a system of evaluating the drawings objectively — in short, allowing any clinician to look at a child’s family sketch and draw roughly the same conclusions.

“As an assessment tool this has been around for a while,” he says of the drawing test, “but this is taking it and turning it into a research tool.”

To do that, the team studied the prevalence of certain qualities — sad faces, distance from parents, etc. — and showed that they point to chaos at home, something that had only been suspected before.

In the past, some therapists have avoided relying on drawing tests because of their ambiguity, says Kirsten Cullen Sharma, a neuropsychologist at New York University who once used the tests but no longer does.

“My colleague might not interpret drawings the same way as me, so there’s a need to continue to develop evaluations so that we can rely on them,” she says.

This new research is the first step toward making that reliability a reality.

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Which Early Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life?

early exp


By Maanvi Singh, NPR

Most of us don’t remember our first two or three years of life — but our earliest experiences may stick with us for years and continue to influence us well into adulthood.

Just how they influence us and how much is a question that researchers are still trying to answer. Two studies look at how parents’ behavior in those first years affects life decades later, and how differences in children’s temperament play a role.

The first study, published Thursday in Child Development, found that the type of emotional support that a child receives during their her first three and a half years has an effect on education, social life and romantic relationships even 20 or 30 years later.

Babies and toddlers raised in supportive and caring home environments tended to do better on standardized tests later on, and they were more likely to attain higher degrees as adults. They were also more likely to get along with their peers and feel satisfied in their romantic relationships.

“It seems like, at least in these early years, the parents’ role is to communicate with the child and let them know, ‘I’m here for you when you’re upset, when you need me. And when you don’t need me, I’m your cheerleader,’ ” says Lee Raby, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware who led the study.

Raby used data collected from 243 people who participated in the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk. All the participants were followed from birth until they turned 32. “Researchers went into these kids’ home at times. Other times they brought the children and their parents to the university and observed how they interacted with each other,” Raby tells Shots.

Of course, parental behavior in the early years is just one of many influences, and it’s not necessarily causing the benefits seen in the study. While tallying up the results, the researchers accounted for the participants’ socioeconomic status and the environment in which they grew up.

Ultimately, they found that about 10 percent of someone’s academic achievement was correlated with the quality of their home life at age three. Later experiences, genetic factors and even chance explain their other 90 percent, Raby says.

And a child’s psychological makeup is a factor as well.

The second study, also published in Child Development, found that children’s early responses to experience help predict whether or not they end up developing social anxiety disorder as teenagers — but only for those who were especially sensitive and distrustful as babies.

For this study, researchers from the University of Maryland observed how 165 babies interacted with their parents. When separated from their parents, some got upset but quickly recovered when they were reunited. Other babies had a harder time trusting their parents after a brief separation, and they weren’t able to calm down after being reunited.

Those extra-sensitive babies were more likely to report feeling anxious socializing and attending parties as teenagers.

So what does this all mean? For one, it means that human development is complicated, according to Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at the University of California, Davis who was not involved in either study.

We know that our early experiences likely affect all of us to a certain extent, Belsky says. And we know that due to variations in psychological makeup, some people are be more sensitive to environmental factors than others.

But that doesn’t mean people can’t recover from bad childhood experiences. “For some, therapy or medication may help,” Belsky says. “And it’s interesting, because there’s now other evidence suggesting that the very kids who succumb under bad conditions are the ones who really flourish under good ones.

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Why Understanding Obstacles is Essential to Achieving Goals


By Linda Flanagan

There is no shortage of pithy quotes encouraging positive thinking:

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“Reach for the stars!”

“Look on the bright side.”

“See the glass as half full.”

While inspiring words might provide a moment of motivation, it turns out they can have an adverse effect on achieving those goals. According to the latest research, the positive attitudes meant to provide inspiration may be the ones that get in the way of accomplishing those dreams.

For 20 years, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of New York University and the University of Hamburg has been examining positive thinking and her conclusion is clear. All that positive thinking can trick the dreamer into believing she’s already done the work to get to the desired goal, squelching the motivation to actually go after it. “Positive thinking alone is not enough,” Oettingen says. Indeed, fantasizing about success without an anchor in reality can actually diminish the likelihood of a better outcome. “[Positive thinking] has to be done in the right way and in the right form.”

What does contribute to success, she says, is the conscious adoption of a nuanced kind of optimism, one that takes into account the real-life barriers to success. In her recent book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen shares a simple cognitive tool that can help children and adults stay motivated to achieve a goal. She calls it “WOOP,” for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan, a more digestible label than the social-science term “mental contrasting with implementation intention.”

Here’s an example of how it works.

Wish: An 11th grader, say, wants to get an A in Honors English. This is his wish.

Outcome: Next, he thinks about what would happen if he achieved this goal, his desired outcome. Perhaps his teacher would recommend him for AP English, boosting his college options. His parents might stop nagging him about getting his assignments done, improving his relationships at home.

Obstacle: The 11th grader now has to engage in mental contrasting, and think about the internal obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal. Maybe he feels tired and skips English homework when basketball practice goes late, and he’s unmotivated to diagram sentences. Perhaps he procrastinates on longer papers because he’s anxious about starting, and ends up handing in a rushed and sloppy report.

Plan: The final leg of the technique is to create a plan that sets up the obstacle and proposed action in a simple statement: “if obstacle x, then I will perform behavior y.” The 11th grader might come up with something like this: “If I feel tired after basketball practice, then I will sit down and do at least half of the sentences for my English homework.” Or, “If I get anxious about my research paper, then I will start work on it for 30 minutes.” He might even find an opportunity to form a preventive “if-then” plan: “if basketball practice starts late, then I will use the time to work on my research paper.”

This cognitive technique is effective, Oettingen says, because it works on the nonconscious mind. Fantasizing about attaining a feasible wish along with the obstacle that stands in the way of attaining it has the effect of tying dreams to reality. “With such a mental linkage in place, an individual couldn’t think about her dream any longer without reference to the obstacle, and the obstacle would serve as a nonconscious spur to take action,” she writes. “The association in turn explains actual, observable changes in behavior.” Another advantage of the strategy is its simplicity: it depends on neither special cognitive skills nor abilities, and can be used at any age.

Oettingen and colleagues have tested the technique in schools, and the results are significant. In peer-reviewed studies carried out with elementary and middle school children in Germany and the United States, students who practiced mental contrasting were better able to learn and retain new foreign language words than students who only fantasized about success. Another study involving high school students found that those who set up a plan for overcoming their obstacles to studying for the PSAT practiced more diligently than a control group that merely dreamt about it. Later research showed that three hours of training in WOOP improved the GPA, attendance rates, and general behavior of fifth graders versus those of who were coached just to think positively. And middle school children considered “at risk” for ADHD showed greater self-regulation when exposed to minimal instruction in mental contrasting and implementation intention—the “wish-outcome-obstacle” and “plan” parts of WOOP.

Besides helping sustain motivation and self-regulation, this cognitive technique also helps children slow the world down, inviting them to look inward to discover what they want to do and where they want to go. “The children are often overwhelmed with messages,” Oettingen says; WOOP “allows them to settle down and think, ‘what do I really want?’” By summoning children to acknowledge what holds them back, “it gets rid of excuses,” she says, and empowers children to take action against their inner obstacles. To enable wider use of the technique, Oettingen has set up a free WOOP app to help kids get to college and stay there.

Oettingen’s research complements the teaching approach of acclaimed chess instructor Elizabeth Spiegel, who took kids from an underprivileged junior high school in Brooklyn to a national chess championship. Spiegel insists that her students think and rethink the possible outcomes of a chess move, and to find and correct the mistakes in their thinking.

Oettingen is careful to point out that hope is a vital and necessary part of achievement, but that relentless pie-in-the-sky optimism detached from reality just hurts children. It desiccates motivation and implies that having a less sunny view of events is a sign of defective thinking and a deformed attitude. “It’s a load on people who doubt and question things, and who see things in a more differentiated way,” she says. “Positive dreams are not enough to actually achieve them.”

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Why Emotional Learning May Be As Important As The ABCs

By Maanvi Singh, NPR

Thomas O'Donnell reads about Twiggle the Turtle to his kindergartners at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore. (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

Thomas O’Donnell’s kindergarten kids are all hopped up to read about Twiggle the anthropomorphic Turtle.

“Who can tell me why Twiggle here is sad,” O’Donnell asks his class at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore.

“Because he doesn’t have no friends,” a student pipes up.

And how do people look when they’re sad?

“They look down!” the whole class screams out.

Yeah, Twiggle is lonely. But, eventually, he befriends a hedgehog, a duck and a dog. And along the way, he learns how to play, help and share.

These are crucial skills we all need to learn, even in preschool and kindergarten. And common sense — along with a growing body of research — shows that mastering social skills early on can help people stay out of trouble all the way into their adult lives.

So shouldn’t schools teach kids about emotions and conflict negotiation in the same way they teach math and reading? The creators of Twiggle the Turtle say the answer is yes.

Twiggle is part of a program called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. It’s designed to help young kids recognize and express emotions.

Matthew Henson Elementary is one of about 1,500 schools around the country using this program, which was first developed in the 1980s.

Every week, students get two 15- to 20-minute lessons on themes like self-control and treating others with respect. Especially for the youngest kids — in kindergarten and first grade — Twiggle often serves as their guide.

O’Donnell says his students are really taking to the lessons. They’re trained, for example, to “do the Turtle” when they’re upset. “That’s when they stop and cocoon themselves. They wrap their arms around themselves and they say what the problem is,” he explains.

O’Donnell’s kids do the turtle all the time — in the hallway and during class.

Right before class starts, for example, one little girl tells her friend, “I don’t like when you touch my hair, because it makes me sad.”

“Sorry!” her friend responds.

While most kids will eventually figure out such strategies on their own, or with help from their parents, O’Donnell says, the lessons help them learn more quickly.

And for some, especially those with troubled home lives, Twiggle is their first and only introduction to healthy self-expression, he says. “Some of them don’t have words to express how they feel before this.”

The Long Game

We previously reported on a national study comparing PATHS and other, similar programs showing positive effects in preschool. They are based on research showing that kids who act up a lot in school and at home — even very young kids — are more likely to have mental health problems and commit crimes years later as adults.

So Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist at Duke University, asked, “Could we do something about that to prevent those problems from actually occurring?” And he has dedicated his career to answering that question.

He and his colleagues launched the FastTrack Project to see if they could change students’ life trajectory by teaching them what researchers like to call social-emotional intelligence.

Back in 1991, they screened 5-year-olds at schools around the country for behavior problems. After interviewing teachers and parents, the researchers identified 900 children who seemed to be most at risk for developing problems later on.

Half of these kids went through school as usual — though they had access to free counseling or tutoring. The rest got PATHS lessons, as well as counseling and tutoring, and their parents received training as well — all the way up until the students graduated from high school.

By age 25, those who were enrolled in the special program not only had done better in school, but they also had lower rates of arrests and fewer mental health and substance abuse issues. The results of this decades-long study were published in September in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The findings prove, Dodge says, “In the same way that we can teach reading literacy, we can teach social and emotional literacy.”

Cost Versus Benefit

PATHS and FastTrack aren’t the only programs of their kind. A social-emotional learning program called RULER, developed at Yale University, has shown promising results, as well. And every year, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning rates the top evidence-based emotional intelligence programs around the country.

So what’s the catch? Why don’t all schools offer emotional intelligence lessons?

Well, it’s expensive.

The full, intensive FastTrack program costs around $50,000 per student, over a 10-year period. Schools can also pick and choose elements of the program.

For example, the short PATHS lessons about Twiggle at Matthew Henson Elementary cost less — about $600 per classroom to start, plus an additional $100 a year to keep it running.

It’s pricey, but it does cost less per child than juvenile detention or rehab programs later on, according to Dodge. As a society, we spend a lot on remedial services — programs like PATHS are preventive, he says. “This is something that in the long run will save dollars.”

At Clark K-8 School in Cleveland, fifth-grader Tommy DeJesus Jr. says he thinks it’s been worthwhile.

DeJesus has been exposed to the PATHS curriculum since he was in kindergarten, and he says he continues to use the social skills he learned from good old Twiggle.

The other day, for example, DeJesus says, he was quick to step in when he saw that a friend was being teased. “They were making fun of his shoes and how he dressed. I said, ‘Just because you have shoes and he doesn’t, that doesn’t give you the right to bully him,’ ” he says.

And the cool thing was, they listened.

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