Child Development

Electroshock Therapy Under Fire

By Adam Reilly   |   Thursday, May 10, 2012
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May 10, 2012
BOSTON — A Canton school for individuals with serious behavior disorders is facing national criticism over its controversial use of electroshock therapy.
In a recent malpractice trial, graphic video of officials at the Judge Rotenberg Center repeatedly shocking autistic teen Andre McCollins was shown in court. The video quickly went viral, prompting more than 200,000 people to sign an online petition demanding that the Rotenberg Center end the practice. 
The error of his ways
The petition drive was launched by Gregory Miller, a former teacher’s assistant at the school. On Wednesday, along with McCollins’ mother Cheryl and a representative from the online-organizing site, Miller brought those names to the State House. 
“We’re taught to believe this is the only school that can help these children in the whole world,” Miller said. “And then you realize afterward — what was I thinking? Because all around the world, they have programs where they use … positive support for these children.”
Rotenberg: take it with a grain of salt
On Miller’s list of politicians to visit: House Speaker Bob DeLeo, whose chamber has repeatedly stopped attempts to make shock therapy illegal.
Mary Ellen Burns, a spokesperson for the Rotenberg Center, told WGBH that Miller’s criticisms should be taken with a measure of skepticism. According to Burns, Miller was a passionate advocate of electroshock therapy during his employment at the Rotenberg Center. In addition, she said, he left the school after being suspended for poor performance.

An Innovative Approach to Help Troubled Teens

By WGBH News   |   Monday, April 30, 2012
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April 30, 2012
BOSTON — The conversation about education reform these days often centers on No Child Left Behind or "teaching to the test." But an innovative technique is playing out about 30 miles north of the Massachusetts border, at Somersworth High School in New Hampshire.

The school has adopted a one-on-one approach between teachers and student to develop education plans and provide counseling and life advice. The results: more kids are staying in school and grades are going up.
Filmmaker Dan Habib documented Somersworth High in his new film, "Who Cares About Kelsey," a profile of a struggling student who went from failing classes and selling drugs to a dramatic turnaround.
One reason for the success of Kelsey and other students at Somersworth High is that the school recognized the need for treatment, not punishment.
"Disproportionately, disciplinary issues do come from kids who, often, have emotional disabilities or are at risk of dropping out," Habib said. "Sometimes acting out, having challenging behavior, is a very effective way of getting attention." Over the 4 years of the program, the school reduced disciplinary issues by 60 percent.
True, it takes a lot of work to change the way a school system operates, but Habib thinks it's worth it. Within a school, programs like Somersworth's improve the climate for all students and give teachers more room to teach — without having to spend time disciplining unruly students.
But more than that, school disengagement is a societal problem, Habib said. In his research, he found that dropouts in the Class of 2008 alone cost the country "$319 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetime." Another study showed that increasing the rate of graduation for male students by 5 percent "we'd save over $8 billion a year in crime-related costs."
So when you change the education system, "As a country and as a community and as a state, you find it yields much more success in terms of human capital," Habib said.

Connectome: How the Brain's Writing Makes Us Who We Are

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
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March 1, 2012

BOSTON — Neuroscience has long focused on the functionality of the different regions of the brain. But two neuroscientists, Sebastian Seung of MIT, and Jeff Lichtman of Harvard University, are arguing for a revolution, stating that this approach does not provide enough information to truly understand the complex functioning of the human brain. They believe that the key to the brain's activity lies in the connections between brain cells. Seung and a dedicated group of researchers are leading the effort to map these connections, neuron by neuron, synapse by synapse -- a development previously unobtainable due to the incredible computing power needed. The result would be a map of the brain's activity referred to as the "connectome", analogous to the genome.

If they succeed, they hope to reveal a more complete understanding of the brain's workings, uncovering the basis of personality, identity, intelligence, memory, and perhaps disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Here, Seung and Lichtman give an overview of the importance of mapping the connections of the brain, and the new technologies they are employing in their endeavor. View the full lecture on WGBH's Forum Network.

'Milking' Language For All It's Worth

By Ibby Caputo   |   Monday, January 9, 2012
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Jan. 9, 2012

baby sign language

A baby in Jill Tully's "Sign to Me, Sing to Me" playgroup tries out a word in sign language. (Courtesy of Brea Ashcraft)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a weekday afternoon, six women gathered with their newborns on a carpeted family room floor in an apartment in Cambridge. All new moms, they came together to learn a thing or two about sign language for their hearing babies.
“I had heard about baby sign before I had my baby,” said Courtney Horwitz, the mom who hosted the party. “People talk about it all the time now. It’s like a big thing."
A playgroup with a purpose
A big thing, but not a new thing. Sign language for babies has been popular among parents for a decade. What is new — at least for these moms — is the methods of Jill Tully.

Jill Tully
Tully teaches the babies a word. (Courtesy of Brea Ashcraft)

Tully, a mother of three, is what you might call a traveling teacher. She lives in Melrose, but teaches “Sign to Me, Sing to Me” playgroups all over the North Shore and Greater Boston Area. She charges $40 for the playgroup, which came out in this case to a little more than $6 per mom.
Tully showed up at Horwitz's apartment with an apple-green-and-white, polka-dot suitcase in tow. Attached to the outside of the bag was a round speaker and a tiny green mp3 player. As soon as Tully got through the door, she turned on the music.
The babies ranged from 6 months to 8 months old and collectively displayed all the signs of baby-ness: crawling, cooing and crying. But when Tully started singing and gesturing with her hands, the babies were mesmerized.
Tully’s exposure to American Sign Language, or ASL, began when she worked as a teacher for young children with language delays. She learned about its use with hearing babies after she had her first child. She loved the idea and took her daughter to a couple of classes, but then the instructor moved away.
“I was really bummed out cause I wanted to continue with it,” Tully said. “So I figured, I guess I’ll start teaching classes because no one else is and it is too cool to let it go.”
That daughter is now 7 and Tully has been developing her method of teaching sign to babies ever since.
Some people teach baby sign to parents in a workshop, Tully said, but she didn't like that approach. "I’m a teacher by nature so I wanted it to be engaging for both the parents and the children, so that the children are getting some music enrichment and learning some signs,” she said.
Baby sign language proponents say the primary purpose of teaching sign to infants is to increase early communication in order to decrease frustration. So if your baby knows the sign for milk — which, by the way, is similar to squeezing the udder of a cow—then she might not have to wail in order to get what she wants.
A medical perspective
Critics fear teaching sign language to babies might delay verbal speech. Kevin Shapiro, a pediatric neurology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, said there is a dearth of data on the effects of teaching sign to hearing babies.
"There’s some research that indicates that children who are exposed to symbolic gesture and develop larger gestural repertoires do a little better on measures of expressive and receptive language in the first two years of life,” Shapiro said. “But that advantage pretty much disappears by 30 months. Then their verbal language takes off and they are pretty much indistinguishable from other typically developed infants.”
But Shapiro said that babies are predisposed to pick up on symbolic gestures and primed to learn language. In fact, whether the language is spoken or signed, the regions of the brain involved in language development are similar — mostly in the left hemisphere, part of the inferior frontal lobe and part of the temporal lobe. And, Shapiro said, "We know that early exposure to language is a good predictor of language development down the line.”
So teaching your baby sign language might not make him smarter in the long run, but it might allow him to choose the topic of conversation. Shapiro used the example of an infant who makes the sign for “bird.”
“The parent knows that the infant is engaged in the birdie and will respond by saying, oh yes, it’s a birdie,” said Shapiro. “It’s a way of eliciting conversation from the parents, which we know is good for child language development.”
Baby sign language in the real world
The parents in Tully’s class were eager to know when their babies would start communicating through sign. She said that if babies are exposed to consistent signing, they can usually master simple signs by 16 to 20 months.
However, one mother in the group said her daughter, Aurora, used her first sign — "milk" — when she was only 6 months old. Brea Ashcraft said she and her husband had been signing "milk" every time they fed Aurora. One day, while taking a break from a feeding, Aurora looked right up at her mother and clenched her fist.
“I could hardly believe it,” Ashcraft said. “Over the next few days she started doing it more and more, and now does it a lot of times when she wants it and even when she’s eating.” If somebody walks in the room during a feeding, Aurora will stop, look up at the person, sign that she’s having "milk" and then go back to eating.
Ashcraft said Aurora now knows a second sign: diaper.
“On Saturday my husband was holding her and she was frantically signing for diaper,” Ashcraft said. “So he takes her into the bedroom, takes off her diaper and her diaper is dry, and he’s like, you don’t need your diaper changed, and then she peed all over him.”
The takeaway from that story? Some things clearly get lost in translation.

Experts Warn Against Digital 'Babysitters'

By WGBH News   |   Thursday, October 20, 2011
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Oct. 20, 2011

child with iPad

Children today pick up using tablets and touch-screen devices as if they were born to it. (michaelaion/Flickr)

BOSTON — With children as young as 2 picking up and easily playing with iPhones and iPads these days, parents are understandably concerned about what effects the new handheld and mobile devices will have.

Tim Monroe is head of school at the Sage School for gifted children in Foxborough, Mass. Like many other educators, he is faced with integrating the new technology into the classroom. He talked with WGBH Radio's Bob Seay about that challenge and gave some advice for parents.

At Sage, every second grader has been given an iPad to use for part of the day, Monroe said: “What we’re trying to do this year is figure out [if] mobile devices enhance learning in the school setting. And so far the results are pretty good.”
He thought it was key that parents supervise their children’s screen time and not use these devices as digital “babysitters.”
Dr. Michael Rich, who directs the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, agreed in an October 20 conversation with Jared Bowen, guest host of “The Emily Rooney Show."
When considering the effects of mobile devices on children, Rich said, “The first thing is to think about what the child is doing on it and for how long. If it is simply to distract them so you can get dinner on the table or take a shower, that’s probably not the right choice to make. … There are alternative activities that kids can do that will keep them just as happy, like giving them a bunch of pots and pans and a wooden spoon while you’re making dinner.”
When a child is allowed to use an iPhone or iPad as a distraction, “it teaches them that this is the default position for downtime,” Rich said.
Hear the complete conversation on "The Emily Rooney Show."

There Are Good Books, And Then There Are Great Books

Monday, May 23, 2011
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Dr. Ilan Stavans is founding academic host
professor at Amherst College, and co-founder
of the Great Books Summer Program.


Download the 2011
Great Books brochure.

A conversation with Great Books Summer Program co-founder, Dr. Ilan Stavans

Dr. Ilan Stavans is Founding Academic Host Professor at Amherst College, and co-founder of the Great Books Summer Program. Dr. Stavans holds an endowed chair as Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latino Studies at Amherst College. Dr. Stavans is a prolific author and editor and is well known for his books, such as Spanglish, as well as his definitive collection of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. In 2010, he created the Great Films movie based on a session at Great Books.

Dr. Stavans, please give us some background on the Great Books Summer Program.

The GBSP is a terrific way to spend the summer immersed in ideas and with people who love them. Designed for middle- and high-school students, Great Books Summer Program invites young people to engage with the literary classics (Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Whitman, Tolstoy, Kafka, et al): to open them up, to debate them, to re-imagine them, to apply their message to our time. During the session, campers may enact plays, write stories, recite poetry, and perhaps even make movies, with the guidance of thought-provoking adults who themselves are teachers, writers, and actors.

How did you become involved with the Great Books Summer Program?

I co-founded the program a decade ago. My dream was to open a space where teenagers would thrive in, through, and around ideas, to inspire them to have the passion I feel toward books. I combined that vision with Peter Temes who was then the President of the Great Books Foundation and we created the program to employ the love of ideas with the “Shared Inquiry” method, always looking to foster the camper’s critical thinking skills. That’s what we need in this complex universe: critical thinking.

What type of young person would enjoy and benefit from the Great Books program the most?
An engaged, intellectually curious young person interested in the various aspects of culture.

What’s a typical day like at Great Books? What are some of the books that are read and discussed? Who are some of the guest authors?
A typical day starts with breakfast, followed by a morning meeting which features a poetry slam. Then comes a lecture with a distinguished thinker about Homer’s The Odysseyand after a short break there is yet another lecture about Pablo Neruda’s Spain in the Heart. Afterward is a discussion section, in which small groups of campers reflect and share ideas on the content of the lecture. Then comes lunch. A free hour allows campers to take hikes, swim, or stage a play. The afternoon might features electives which include creative writing, visual art, music, theater, and various literature related topics. Each evening features an event—there may be a movie showing (Duck Soup, O Brother Where Art Thou, Citizen Kane) or a guest speaker (Debbie Applegate, Joseph Ellis, John Sayles). In the late evening, campers might read the poetry of Emily Dickinson under the starry sky.

Why do you feel it’s so important for young people to continue learning during the summer?

First, learning shouldn’t be a task. It should be fun and Great Books helps to remind campers that the pursuit of knowledge can be a lively and engaging affair. Second, we all know the importance of maintaining academic progress over the summer, to avoid summer slide. Bright young people should engage in academic pursuits to help enhance what they have learned in the previous school year and to prepare themselves for greater academic challenges in the year to come.

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About the Authors
Adam Reilly Adam Reilly
Adam Reilly is a political reporter and associate producer for WGBH's Greater Boston.
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 


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