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Fluency, the gateway to reading comprehension at The Craig School

Reading comprehension provides a path for our students to identify simple facts presented in texts; make judgments or evaluate the contents of texts; and finally, connect one text to other texts or situations. Simply, reading comprehension allows our students to make meaning from what they read. Structured literacy programs, such as what we provide at The Craig School, address fluency instruction distinctly from the components of structural language that we, as parents and educators, may hear spoken of often, such as phonemes, morphemes, syntax, and semantics. Fluency, however, is much more complex than “automaticity” or decoding a word at a steady rate without any additions, substitutions, or omissions.

Reading fluency has three major components — a) accuracy, b) rate of reading and c) prosody — and each needs attention. When students can decode unfamiliar words accurately, use context to help correct errors in word reading, and have mastered several sight words, they are said to be accurate readers. Rate of reading can be defined as one’s ability to recognize words automatically or almost automatically, to read at a sufficient rate per minute, and to maintain rate or adjust rate in accordance with increasingly more difficult texts. Finally, prosody, or expression, is how the student attends to punctuation. It is a measure of phrasing, intonation, and timing, and it is the vehicle in which students express and communicate the meaning of the text.

Fluency is measured through informal and formal means, such as curriculum-based measurements (CBM) such as the Hasbrouck-Tindal Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), or a norm-referenced assessment, such as the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE), both among evaluation tools used at The Craig School. The benefit of an informal assessment is screening and progress monitoring. When used as progress monitoring tools, the extent to which the student is improving from the instruction and intervention is measured. Having a clearer picture of the student’s progress allows our reading and Orton Gillingham teachers to adjust programs and goals or to determine if they should stay the course. It allows us to be responsive to the instructional needs of our students in a thoughtful and timely manner. Norm-referenced assessments, such as the GRADE, include measures of reading comprehension, language comprehension, semantics, decoding, cipher knowledge and letter knowledge, and provide benchmarks from which to build a comprehensive, customized reading program.

Once we have a gauge of where the student is in terms of reading fluency, the instructional program shifts to the student’s specific needs so that the student begins to read with ease and can devote all of his or her attention to comprehension. For students with dyslexia, a great amount of energy is placed on decoding or word identification. Little is left for understanding what was read. Moreover, a reduced rate of reading increases subsequent challenges with comprehension. However, as Janet Cozine, longtime director of the Lower School and Middle School, noted, “Fluent reading increases comprehension, but parents, what you need to realize is if we push students to read faster than they can comprehend, it is counterproductive.” Reading and Orton Gillingham teachers engage in a delicate dance to balance all five core components of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Reading Panel) — and to do so in a manner that is uniquely suited to the needs of the individual student.

Fluency takes practice and the best practice is through oral reading. You, too, should read aloud to your student as explicit modeling of fluent reading (e.g., “I do, We do, You do” method) is one of the most effective ways of improving read- ing fluency (Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002). Don’t forget the power of positive and meaningful feedback as an effective tool as well. Fluency practice applies not only to our students in the lower school but also to our middle and high school students. Teens may improve their fluency through listening to an adult read a text aloud to model fluent reading, by reading along with an audiobook, or by partner-reading when studying for an upcoming test.

By opening the door to fluency, our students explore a new world of understanding and can benefit from, and perhaps even learn to enjoy, the process of reading, resulting in high- er levels of student engagement and motivation.

Currently celebrating its 42nd anniversary, The Craig School is an independent school that specializes in working with students with language-based learning differences in grades two through 12. The Craig School’s program features proven, research-based learning strategies based on a comprehensive, whole-child approach and multisensory instructional strategies. Our tools allow students to build their academic foundations, increase their ability to be active and independent learners, and develop a sense of who they are as individuals and students. Visit us at craigschool.org.

“[Students with dyslexia]...think differently. They are intuitive and excel at problem solving, seeing the big picture, and simplifying. They feast on visualizing, abstract thinking, and thinking out of the box. They are…inspired visionaries” (Shaywitz, 2003). 

 

These words from Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity and author of Overcoming Dyslexia speak to the unique strengths that many students with language-based learning differences possess. Adding on to her strengths profile is keen spatial reasoning, that is, the ability to think about and manipulate objects in three dimensions, which, like the above attributes, are uniquely suited for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) pursuits. I believe that it is in the very nature of being “wired differently” that a learning profile compatible with the cognitive demands of STEM emerges. What is unfortunate, however, is that in traditional classrooms, students with language-based learning differences may be left out of STEM learning mainly due to assessment structures, such as language-dependent tests, and instructional approaches which lean heavily on language processing and symbolic decoding skills. The cognitive processing burden this creates impacts a student’s ability to truly demonstrate their learning and mastery of the subject; it also perpetuates barriers to meaningful learning for students with exceptionalities. These traditional school structures then may lead to being excluded from more advanced-level STEM courses and future career opportunities. STEM-based education is important for all learners, providing opportunities for developing 21st-century skills integral to the fabric of today’s workforce. 

 

STEM-based education far surpasses concepts in math and science as it is keenly focused on hands-on learning with real-world applications through a cross-curricular lens, all while developing creativity, collaboration, communication, and flexibility, for example. There are many benefits of STEM education beyond scientific literacy; here are just a few: 

  • STEM curriculum encourages teamwork and helps develop a student’s project management skills. Skills such as leadership, time management, accountability, task completion, and active listening and reflection, are honed in project-based STEM learning activities.
  • STEM curriculum helps students to think critically, intelligently analyzing whatever problem is put before them, to think creatively about the questions or obstacles they face, and to think innovatively through applied problem-solving.  
  • STEM curriculum provides opportunities for social-emotional growth, such as learning how to work with one another, to appreciate different points of view, and how to recognize one another’s strengths, so that together, students can achieve even greater outcomes.

Written By Janet M. Cozine- The Craig School LS/MS Director

 

One of the most commonly used reading and writing strategies at The Craig School is R.A.C.E., a design that helps our students support their written responses with evidence from the text. 

  • R: Restate the question
  • A: Answer the question
  • C: Cite the text to provide evidence
  • E: Explain your citation

The acronym is posted almost everywhere at Craig. Readily seeing the mnemonic helps students remember which steps, and in which order to write a constructed response.

We start the R.A.C.E. strategy in reading classes as early as fourth grade, understanding that our emerging readers may only get as far as R (restating the question) and A (answering the question). It’s not always easy for students to answer questions in a formal style. Often their language tends to be more informal, so explicitly teaching the skills of putting thoughts and answers into more formal writing early on will position the students for middle school and the next step to R.A.C.E. the C (citing evidence from the text).

Students are taught to highlight the question words to be used in Restate. When answering the questions teachers are pointing out the connection to Project Read Written Expression as well. The more opportunities the students have to recognize the interrelationships of the strategies the greater the chance for generalization.

In sixth grade, we pull the instruction of Restate and Answer into Science and Social Studies classes. Teacher modeling is still required, but we are now looking for the skill of Restate and Answer the question to become more automatic. When students are ready, Citing the source is introduced in all of the content areas tying in Project Read Report Form, to support where examples and details are found in the text. Scanning for information can be challenging so we start simply, giving the page number to find the evidence and then scaffolding from there. The students are then taught to underline the evidence from the text that supports their answers. This will prepare them for the hardest part of RACE - E - explain. Students need to be taught to explain their evidence without just restating. We present simple sentence stems that help supports their explanation. The stems will eventually be removed once the students understand how to show why the textual evidence matters. We use the detective analogy. A detective collects a lot of the evidence and then has to explain how each piece of evidence proves his case.

The process of using R.A.C.E. is woven throughout the Craig curriculum and throughout the student’s years at Craig. It becomes more sophisticated as time goes on and requires lots and lots of practice. With that practice, we have found that our students learn to do what every good writer does.

 

 

Simply put, books are powerful. They provide opportunities for imagination, discovery, deep thinking and learning, and may even lead to truly transformative experiences. Our students have a complex history with the power of the printed word. For some, the frustration is so palpable that books begin to be viewed as a roadblock they wish not to tackle. For others, there may be what presents as indifference to reading or even a reluctance to read. What is beautiful to witness at The Craig School is when our students unlock the reading code and gain the skills needed to begin a new relationship with books, reaping the benefits of deep understanding and rich comprehension. Walking the hallway of Wilson Hall just this morning, I found students excitedly sharing aloud stories they wrote and reading passages from books they love. 

 

Each March, The Craig School celebrates National Reading Month, through Read Across America events, such as a Dr. Suess writing workshop in our high school, a special Dr. Suess-themed breakfast for lower and middle school students, and a school-wide “Drop Everything and Read!” event. This is followed up with our annual Scholastic Book Fair, March 9th-11th located in Wilson Hall on the Lower and Middle School. Each is intentionally part of our programming to enhance our students’ relationship with books. 

 

Read Across America, which is also the birthday of Dr. Suess, is celebrated each year on this very day, March 2nd. It began as a means for parents, teachers, and communities to help young people uncover the fun and curiosity that reading can bring to us. Today, our hope remains that through these focused activities during National Reading Month, our students find a renewed sense of joy in reading. As students master lower-level reading skills (e.g. phonics, phonemic awareness, etc.) and begin to acquire more complex and nuanced skills (e.g. fluency and comprehension), focused reading-related festivities, such as Read Across America, are tools The Craig School uses to promote a positive attitude toward reading and to begin a new page in our students’ journey with books. Additionally, I find these two research-backed suggestions helpful in our thinking about how to spark our students’ joy of reading: 

  • Choice matters to students. Students who choose their own books to read, rather than being assigned a specific text, are much more likely to read the book, and 
  • Students who see themselves in the books they read, that is, they feel a connection to their life within the text, find increased motivation and investment in reading. 

Developing skilled reading is a lifelong process. At The Craig School, we provide students with the tools and strategies needed to fully comprehend what they read, in addition to experiences that promote positive moments in which to discover the power found within books.

 

At The Craig School, we speak often about our goal to foster independent learners. Part of this process requires a closer examination of our students’ needs and the compensatory strategies, interventions, or instructional strategies central to creating an environment conducive to their most optimal growth. This week, I turn our attention to working memory and its role in learning. In short, working memory is the small amount of information that is held in the mind while simultaneously understood and used.  It has auditory or verbal components best described as a sort of recording of what you hear containing words, numbers, and sentences, and visual-spatial elements described as a visual representation of information in the “mind’s eye” (images, pictures, and information about location in space). 

 

Working memory impacts reading, information processing, problem-solving, remembering instructions, and attention. Each is important in our students’ journey as scholars. For example, word problems in math can be challenging because students must attend to clue words for operations, clue words for numbers, as well as clue words for sequencing or ordering of events all at the same time. Specific to reading, working memory provides a link to information held in long-term semantic memory stores with the meaning and pronunciation of words. Working memory impacts spelling, written expression, reading comprehension, and even fluency or automaticity. When I think about our students who struggle with working memory, I imagine them trying to hold onto incoming information while also using that same information for a task, each action taxing their cognitive load and leaving less space for the actual learning process to occur. This may be cognitively and sometimes physically exhausting for students.  

 

Even more important than understanding working memory, is translating this understanding into actionable practice in the classroom to more effectively support our students’ learning. Faculty at The Craig School incorporate the following to support students with their working memory demands: 

  • teaching students how to use and when to use reference sheets, memory aids, and graphic organizers,

  • keeping directions concise and clear as well as repeating directions,

  • breaking tasks into smaller chunks,

  • providing information through multiple means: speak it, show it, and model it method,

  • applying visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile instructional modalities to engage learning,

  • increasing the meaningfulness of the material by providing examples students can relate to, and

  • developing routines in classroom procedures, like routines for turning in completed work, which then after repeated practice, begins to internalize and automatize, thus reducing the cognitive load demand.

While this list is not exhaustive, it does provide a glimpse into how thoughtfully and intentionally, we approach our work with your students. Please know, there are many things parents and teachers can do to understand and support our students’ working memory. As you get to know what we call “The Craig School Toolbox” you will notice commonalities in classroom settings such as highly structured and well-organized classroom environments, direct, explicit instruction, along with specific instructional practices, for example, cueing, the use of checklists, reference sheets, and reminder systems, among many other strategies. There are even things that parents can do at home, that are appropriate for our young and our old students alike, such as only giving one task command at a time, rather than a string of instructions and using verbal and visual cues to build consistent home routines, think post-it note reminders or asking your child to verbally repeat the task aloud  (Child Mind Institute). While this is just a snapshot of our educational approach through the lens of one specific challenge many of our students face, I encourage continued conversation on how we can partner to best meet the needs of our students. I appreciate time spent with you in partnership and support of fostering our students’ best selves. 

 

Individualized education programs that focus on learner competencies enhance student growth and increase parental involvement.

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Teachers Connecting to Advance Retention and Empowerment.

In the Spring of 2020, T-CARE offered its first special edition, one with the theme of Teaching, Leaming, and Working in a Remote Environment. In my editorial, I shared that “Many wrote in and, based on the responses, we created a new section for this issue only: Reflections in the Time of COVID-19." How devastating to realize that, almost two years later, we are not reflecting on a time gone by, but reflecting on a trauma we are still experiencing. This is our third special issue in fact, following one on Equity, Access, and Social Justice in Fall 2020. Dealing with our own traumas and special circumstances, the CTL did not publish a T-CARE issue earlier in 2021. This, the only issue in 2021, has the theme of If I Had Known Then...

DOWNLOAD FULL PDF HERE

Introduction & Rationale

Background

Teens with ADHD experience greater levels of academic impairment than students without ADHD.  Academic enablers, non-cognitive skills and behaviors, like study skills, engagement, motivation, and interpersonal skills are essential components to optimal academic attainment.  For students with ADHD, these skills tend to be underdeveloped.  This study explored the attitudes, thoughts, and perspectives of students in high school diagnosed with ADHD in regards to their challenges, their strengths, and their experiences as students.  As children gain more autonomy, listening to their voice is an important step on their path to self-advocacy.  To inform the understanding and development of models for effective intervention that are accepted and readily adopted by teenagers with ADHD, interviews conducted with 16 students examined academic enablers from their perspective. Results from these interviews create an authentic context for exploring student perspectives about (a) the social self, the student learner in relation to teachers and peers, and (b) the individual self, and (c) the student’s use of self-regulation, self-management, and self-expression as they become more autonomous individuals with increased responsibilities for their own learning. This study examines high school students’ experiences and perspectives of their ability to learn and experiences in the classroom, the interventions teachers have taken with them, exposure to stigmatization, engagement in student agency, diagnostic labeling effects, and their self-concept (Owens & Jackson, 2017; Wiener & Daniels, 2016).

Figure 1. Model of academic enablers and relationship to prior and current academic achievement.  Adapted from DiPerna, Volpe, and Elliott, 2005).

Need for Study

Persisting into adolescence and adulthood, educational impairment impacts 50 to 80% of youth with ADHD (DuPaul, Stoner, & Reid, 2014).  Critical skills for students in secondary schools include the ability to engage executive functions and self-regulatory behaviors, such as planning and organization, all predictive of future academic attainment (Barkley, 1997; Volpe et al., 2006).

A large body of research exists exploring the role of behavior in academic attainment for elementary students as well as students in college.  However, the cannon of literature exploring the experiences of teenagers with ADHD in relation to their acquisition of academic enablers leading to educational attainment as they navigate more autonomy, less parent, teacher, and school supports and structures, and increased independence are scant (Bolic Baric, Hellberg, Kjellberg & Hemmingsson, 2016; DiPerna, 2006; Kent et al., 2011; Wiener & Daniels, 2016; Wu & Gau, 2013).

Research shows that teenagers may be resistant to academic supports they view as stigmatizing or labeling (Bussing et al., 2016; Owens & Jackson, 2017).  To inform understanding and development of models for effective intervention that are accepted and readily adopted by teenagers with ADHD, a closer look at academic enablers from their position is essential (Wei, Yu & Shaver, 2014).

Research Questions

  1. How do teenagers with ADHD describe high school learning experiences?
  2. How do teenagers with ADHD perceive their ability to self-regulate for educational attainment?
  3. How can a deeper and more refined knowledge of these students’ experiences and perspectives be applied on their behalf to strengthen their educational attainment?

 


Methods

  • Case Study through the lens of interpretivism.
  • Interpretivism is “an attempt to understand and explain human and social reality based on the meaning that the individual perceives,” thus, creating an ambulatory sense of reality (Crotty, 1998, p.66).
  • The study includes semi-structured interviews of sixteen high school students with ADHD.
  • All three subtypes of ADHD are included in the study.  Grade level, socio-economic status, family history, co-occurring disorders or disabilities, and cognitive ability are not controlled for in the study.
  • In addition to semi-structured interviews of students, classroom observation and field notes are included.
  • Non-probabilistic, purposeful sampling.
  • To qualify as a “case” or bounded system of analysis, the participants for this study are selected based on the following criterion: a) documented diagnosis of ADHD that can include any subtype outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V), b) enrolled in grades nine through twelve, c) current Section 504, IEP, or accommodation plan implemented for the student, d) boarding or day student status, and e) inclusive of all nationalities and citizenship.
  • Trustworthiness: (a) member checks, (b) thick description, and (c) researcher journal notes, were used to better understand biases and judgements as well as to acknowledge the principal researcher’s biases regarding the data (Korstjens & Moser, 2018; Merriam & Tisdell, 2016).
  • Well-recognized research methods included: (a) description of background, qualifications, and experience of the researcher, and examination of previous research to frame findings for credibility, (b) background data to establish the context of the study for transferability, in depth methodology description for dependability replication, and (c) admission of the researcher’s biases and study limitations for confirmability (Guba, 1981).
  • Thematic analysis and coding in the tradition Braun and Clarke (2006) serve as a method for data analysis: (a) familiarization of the data, (b) generation of initial codes, (c) a search for themes, (d) a review of themes, (e) defining and naming the themes, and finally, (f) producing the report.
  • A visual thematic map is an outcome from the thematic analysis. Braun and Clarke’s 15-point checklist was also used.

Interview Questions

  1. How did you feel about yourself when you were diagnosed with ADHD?
  2. What kind of academic challenges do you experience in high school?
  3. What do you do when you have a test coming up?
  4. How do you organize your school work?
  5. What qualities are important for you from teachers?
  6. Tell me, in detail, some things that teachers have done to help you with time management.
  7. Tell me, in detail, some things that teachers have done to help you with organization.
  8. Visualize a time in a classroom setting where you felt successive and describe this to me.
  9. Tell me about a time when you think ADHD has impacted your ability to learn.
  10. What else would you like to share about your experiences with ADHD in school?

Emergent Themes


Individualized/Modulated Pacing

“So like, I also like individualized learning. So like, here, it's amazing because like, there's smaller class size and then there's also study hall that you can go to. And I really like that because then you get more time with the teacher individually. So I like it, I like when I know that I can have help individually.”

-JA, 12th grade

Teacher Directed Learning and Attention

“I'm a very, I learned by talking through things and or doing them. If a teacher is willing to talk with me about the subject, not not particularly be very restrictive on it. My brain has a very odd way of making connections. So a lot of the times if a teacher is willing to go with me on one of my weird metaphors I'll understand the subject...it just...it helps me to talk it out and say, Okay, well, it's like this and this, right? And if they say yes, then that's great. If it's no, then it's another try. And I've always found that the best way for me to learn.”

-OL, 12th grade

“And so we wrote it all down, and then we put how much time I think it's going to take, so that helped with my organization, because then that actually, it actually worked because I spent a certain amount of time on each thing and I got it done. So, she's, she's amazing with that. She's really great at organization.”

-SB, 11th grade

Passive Peer Mentoring

“Yeah, because I know that other people are you know, more focused and can do things faster. So if I have …it's sort of like cross country running, if I have someone who can pace myself. Then I can, I work a lot better.”

-FP, 10th grade

“...not doing it in my room. I just can’t concentrate. I need someone kind of there, to, like help me.  Like, it’s weird. If someone’s like sitting next to me while I’m doing work, I’m doing it much better than when I am by myself.”

-KS, 10th grade

Self-Concept: Identity

“When I was a lot younger, my mom went to multiple doctors and asked them if I was autistic. And, you know, so on and so forth. There were quite a few different diagnoses that came up over the years. So, needless to say, the ADHD wasn't really a new thing for me to be diagnosed as…And parenting is hard. And when you can't find an answer for why your child is behaving like this, or why your child isn't behaving like this. It can be scary, which I understand. And I also have to know that that wasn't the correct behavior that, you know, they should have been a little more considerate.”

-OL, 12th grade

Self-Concept: Belonging

“I felt like I was different from everyone else…That was when I was first diagnosed. But then, like, as I learned more about ADHD, I’m like, no, I’m no different. I just have this thing….that kind of makes it harder for me to learn and focus.”

-JA, 12th grade

Self-Management

“Because in order to keep myself physically organized, I have to keep myself mentally organized. So like to have like to have it all organized. I try to stay on top of it, if not ahead of what's going on. Not only because I really don't like doing homework outside of the school hours, but also because when I do homework outside of school hours, it's kind of like, I get more distracted and more like, oh, I don't want to do this.”

-SS, 11th grade

Self-Awareness

“I been very good about adapting and knowing exactly what I need when I need it. Because otherwise, I’m just not going to succeed.”

-OL, 12th grade

Attention/Focus

“I'll be talking and all of a sudden, my mind just goes faster than I'm talking. I'm just like…I start fumbling on words. I'm like, I have to chill for a second. I can't talk right now. Because my mind is already like, 10 words of head of what I was already saying…”

-KS, 12h grade

Self-Expression

“I like to do whatever I can get my hands on, basically. I will do anything I can. Like, I can do fashion design. I can sing songs. And I’m learning to write songs. I’m just great at painting. I’m great at a lot of things.”

-KQ, 9th grade

Conclusions

Results from the study revealed the challenges that teenagers with ADHD face along with their perspectives on identity, self-expression, and sense of belongingness.  Balancing teacher-led scaffolding and collaborative learning opportunities with peers may be one means to address the interplay of dependence moving to independence as a learner.  As students mature, their responsibilities are expected to increase.  However, these 16 participant interviews and observations indicate there are varying levels of student readiness to move in the direction of self-agency and autonomy.  Many teens continue to need support with basic study skills like organization, prioritization, planning, and time management.  Additionally, engaging the student in work that is meaningful to them gives them a greater sense of ownership over the process of learning, and increases their ability to attend to the task.  Teachers who give students choice in the type of task (e.g. essay instead of multiple choice test, or project rather than worksheet) are able to leverage the students’ buy-in and innate motivation to get the work done.  Teachers are encouraged to allow the students to use multiple means to represent their learning, encouraging the student to tap into their affinity for self-expression.  Finally, increasing relevant pre-service training for teachers would not only benefit students with ADHD, but all learners so that teachers are equipped with a toolbox of instructional strategies and interventions that far exceed the traditional needs in the high school classroom.

Postsecondary Planning in the Age of COVID

In the middle school years, parents and oftentimes students alike, begin to turn their attention to life beyond the hallowed halls of The Craig School by exploring college and career possibilities for their student. Parents new to our school may not be aware of our end-to-end College Counseling and Career Placement services. While the lion’s share of activities generated out of our college and career office relate to high school, Lindsey Skerker, Director of College Counseling and Placement, is here for all Craig School parents, whether your child is in 7th grade or in 11th grade. 

Through supportive and differentiated guidance specific to each student, their educational journey, and their dreams of the future, Lindsey works with students and families to navigate the complexities of understanding one’s learning proclivities and uncovering “best fit,” all the while empowering students for success in the college and career application process. This personalized approach accommodates students’ needs and strengths, tunes in to building self-advocacy and self-awareness skills, and encourages our students to find schools catered to their unique interests. 

I encourage parents, especially our middle and high school parents, to join Lindsey for a webinar on October 27th at 7 pm, Postsecondary Planning in the Age of COVID. Lindsey will walk us through some of the sweeping changes to the college admissions & post-high school landscape that have occurred since 2020. 

The path to college and post-secondary career is both a celebration and an extension of the students’ learning experience as a Craig School Badger. For a sneak peek into the scope of the webinar, please enjoy this blog post from The Craig School’s Director of College Counseling and Placement, Lindsey Skerker. I look forward to “seeing” you next Wednesday night! 

Best, 

Dr. Kara A. Loftin 

Head of School 

 

Postsecondary Planning in the Age of COVID

By Lindsey Skerker, Director of College Counseling and Placement at The Craig School 

Within the past 18 months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 and higher education has been forced to rapidly adapt. It has been hard enough for educators, let alone students and families, to keep up with these countless changes and challenges. COVID has been incredibly difficult for the education sector, with lasting ripple effects which will impact this generation of learners for years to come. However, I believe it has also brought about certain equitable adaptations that would have never occurred so quickly in the “before COVID era.”  Especially as a counselor for students with learning disabilities (LDs), I have been able to witness some silver linings in the postsecondary planning process, many of which will have an immense impact on the graduating Classes of the 2020s and beyond.  

Before COVID entered our vernacular in 2020, many of our LD students were not just struggling with their usual ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, executive functioning challenges, etc. but much of that was compounded by mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% of American adults and 17% of American youth (ages 6-17) experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. These mental health stats along with the “The Varsity Blues College Admissions Scandal” (one of the biggest news stories of 2019), and the combination of a once-in-a-century pandemic was a huge wake-up call to the higher education sector. The need for a more holistic and less mental-health-shattering college admissions process was more apparent than ever before. 

 

When counseling students from the Class of 2020 and onwards, I have called them the pioneers in this “Wild West” new world of COVID and beyond. As colleges & universities became “test-optional” or “test-blind” in the blink of an eye in 2020, that in and of itself was a huge marker for equitable change and forward thinking in the college admissions process. 

 

These “test-optional” or “test-blind” schools (which do not require SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process), seem like they will be here to stay for a large portion of colleges and universities. Some colleges have pledged to keep these policies through at least the Class of 2023, and others like the University of California system have done away with them altogether (note: please refer to FairTest.org for further “test-optional” colleges). Even before 2020, it is also important to realize that certain colleges have been part of the “test-optional” movement for decades! Now though, more schools are finally catching up and putting greater emphasis on other pieces of the college application, like the personal statement essay, GPA, and letters of recommendation.  This increase towards a more holistic approach to the application review process has kept students’ mental health at the forefront. Finally, college admissions as an entity understands the stressors and anxieties that applicants face, for much of our society has had to grapple with staying healthy both physically and mentally. This greater overall understanding of student well-being and the major admissions adaptations have been a huge silver lining in the postsecondary process.

 

I like to think that another silver lining is the increased amount of autonomy and options that now exist in education and the postsecondary process. Students have experienced in-person, hybrid, and remote models of learning over the past year and a half. They have come to recognize what works best for them as a student. These experiences can hopefully act as a reflective tool to determine a potential college or career path, as students and families have come to an acute understanding of what the best learning environment is – whether that’s online, in-person, or hybrid.  This individualized approach coupled with more autonomous educational opportunities will hopefully benefit students now and in the future.

 

Finally, I’ve appreciated the greater emphasis on really examining the “why” behind a postsecondary decision, especially during this era. Instead of just going to college because that is what a student thinks they are “supposed” to do, there has been much more of a step back to ask the “why” behind it. Students and families have been forced to consider if they’ve wanted to attend (and pay for) college classes online last year or in-person now with COVID lurking around campus corridors.  Since Spring of 2020, many high school seniors across the US fully re-evaluated their decisions, and some chose to take a gap year or stay close to home to gain work or volunteer experience.  I think that this era has really made our society question past “norms” that perhaps have been damaging to some students with LDs and mental health issues. People have hopefully recognized by now that just because students are chronologically 18 years old doesn’t mean that all of them are ready at the exact same time to do the exact same thing!  A special shoutout to Leslie Josel for sharing the “executive age” concept in her recent Craig School webinar, where she explained that students with ADHD and executive functioning deficits can lag a few years behind peers in terms of organization and independence. 

 

This is certainly an important piece with our LD population, and then couple this “executive age” concept with delays tacked on thanks to COVID, and we are again left to examine the big questions behind postsecondary decisions.  Overall though, I think we can finally begin to acknowledge that some students need extra time to mature, or perhaps they have different priorities now, and I consider that a huge leap forward in changing the cultural narrative around these types of post-high school graduation conversations.  For those who are interested in exploring these topics further, I’d like to invite you to attend the upcoming webinar on Wednesday, October 27th at 7 pm where I will be discussing Postsecondary Planning in the Age of COVID

 

Thank you, and I hope to “see” you there!

 

Lindsey Skerker, 

Director of College Counseling and Placement at The Craig School 

 

Executive functions are inextricably linked to learning and problem-solving. A common misconception I hear regarding students who may struggle with executive functioning skills is that this struggle is synonymous with challenges linked to ADHD. While executive function challenges may accompany ADHD symptomology, it is also true that a student who exhibits weaker or underdeveloped executive functioning skills, may not fit diagnostic criteria for ADHD. To be clear, executive functions play a crucial role for learners of all abilities throughout their school years, whether or not these skills are typical, delayed, or labeled dysfunctional for any particular student. They are developmentally-related functions that help navigate both educational and life-related activities; they help us organize our behaviors and tune out distractions so that we may accomplish our goals. 

 

As an educator, I believe I have a responsibility to understand the links between neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education so that we, at The Craig School, implement classroom settings, strategies, and educational programs that build upon these critical self-management skills, the executive functions. 

 

Understanding written text is one of the most important abilities students must acquire during their school years. Reading comprehension difficulties may exist despite adequate decoding skills. Decoding skills involve knowledge and subsequent application of letter-sound relationships and letter patterns, language comprehension (vocabulary, morphology, oral comprehension for example), and word identification. 

Skilled reading focuses on reading comprehension, the “process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language.” (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). The discrepancy between adequate decoding and the ability to understand written text indicates other contributing cognitive processes for successful reading comprehension beyond these foundational reading or decoding skills. There are four core executive functions related to reading comprehension: cognitive flexibility, planning, inhibition, and working memory. As students progress from grade to grade, questions aligned to inference making and evaluation, rather than literal extraction, become more and more important for accurate understanding and subsequent transfer of knowledge. The following is a taste of how each of these four core executive functions impacts students’ ability to comprehend: 

  1. Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to manage many elements of a task while actively switching between them. Skilled readers must move between decoding and meaning-making and this requires not only automaticity in the decoding process but also cognitive flexibility. Readers who exhibit inflexible focus on word-level and phonological features are unable to attend to the meaning of the text. 
  2. Planning in the reading process is the ability to understand text prediction of what happens next (forward inference). The ability to plan is critical as texts become more complex, such as inferential questioning in expository writing. 
  3. Inhibition is the ability to ignore distractions and habitual responses. In skilled reading, students use inhibition to ignore inappropriate word meanings and irrelevant connections to ideas in the text. Skilled readers can keep at bay inappropriate meanings of ambiguous words or homophones and they can ignore words that are no longer relevant for the purpose of the task at hand. 
  4. Working Memory is the capacity to hold information in mind while working with only a part of that information. Skilled readers are able to keep in mind ideas presented in the text, note the links between them, and continually update the meaning attached to them as new information presents itself. When we read, we are juggling a lot of information and having to keep it in mind long enough to make sense of it. 

 

While applicable for all types of learners, I can not emphasize enough the role of executive functions when examining classroom instruction and approaches for students with learning differences as many times challenges in executive functioning mask students’ academic ability and capabilities. At The Craig School, you will hear often of our goal to move students toward increased independence as learners. This is a process; it takes time and it also requires us to provide both compensatory strategies and focused intervention of these underlying cognitive processes central to academic success. As you get to know The Craig School Toolbox and our approach to fostering executive functioning development in all of our students, you will notice commonalities in classroom settings such as highly structured and well-organized classroom environments, along with specific instructional practices like cueing, the use of checklists and reference sheets, reminder systems, grouping information into chunks, and the use of mnemonic devices for learning, among many other strategies. 

 

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