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APRIL 2009

Education Updates Second New York Citywide Special Education Conference at Hunter College

By Sybil Maimin

Education Update’s recent Second New York Citywide Special Education Conference at Hunter College provided much needed insight, data, and innovative approaches to parents and teachers working with special needs children. Presentations by experts in the field offered cutting edge information about a range of behaviors from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to autism. The program was poignantly capped by a panel of parents of special needs children who spoke from the ground with practical tips and realistic assessments.

Click to Enlarge Photos
2nd Special Education Conference

Lisa Fleisher, Ph.D., associate professor of Educational Psychology at NYU, spoke of Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) as a way to strengthen new behaviors and improve quality of life for both a child and those around him or her. A child can “keep you hostage with challenging behaviors,” she explained. Research-based strategies using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) include avoidance of aversive interactions. For example, a person who exhibits bad behavior in crowds should be kept away from large gatherings. To produce change, interventions should respect dignity and preferences and create supportive environments and increased opportunities for display of positive behaviors.

Katherine Garnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Special Education at Hunter College, reviewed the history of the behavior spectrum, noting that descriptive names and initials are not new. By 1902, disorders were seen not as character defects, but as problems of self-control on the neurological level. The name “hyperactivity” was used in the 1960s, and “attention deficit disorder”, with some understanding of its nature, became a commonly-used term in the 1980s. ADD, with or without the H, affects executive function, or our ability to self-regulate. Garnett explained, “We all have executive function to some degree—we initiate things and inhibit things …We monitor to see if we get off the track and shift back on track. These things can be difficult for kids with executive function problems.” She continued, “Weak inhibition is a major sign of weak executive function—impulsivity.” Many ADHD students move around seeking stimulation. They need novelty and variety. Garnett emphasized that special education curricula should support student strengths and “help them shine”. Students want to “be enjoyed, tolerated, and told when they are doing something right.” She reminded her listeners, “The insides of these kids are incredibly fragile.”

Howard Abikoff, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders at NYU Langone Medical Center, spoke about treating and assessing organizational skills deficits in children with ADHD. Citing his study conducted under a National Institute of Mental Health grant, he explained that organization, time management and planning (OTMP) can be taught. OTMP deficits can compromise school success, create family conflict, and eventually affect job functioning. Early remedial intervention involving collaboration between child, parent, and teacher can target specific deficits. If a child has a problem with materials management (“cannot find stuff”), a program involving lists, check-offs and binders, together with parent and teacher reviews, can be effective. If possible, programs should be fun and varied. Deficits should be objectified and referred to as “glitches.”

MacLean Gander, Ed.D., vice president for External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives at Landmark College, addressed the challenges and gifts of writers with ADHD. He described writing as “the most complex cognitive process expected as a common activity in a literate society.” Challenges for writers with ADHD include sustaining effort, planning, organization, self-monitoring and working memory, as well as combating boredom or anxiety. Academic writing can be particularly challenging. Gander also emphasized that ADHD can produce important strengths in writers such as an ability to hyper-focus, an intensity of feelings, new and rich ideas born of unusual images and connections, and disinhibition. Gander concluded we should see the creative potential for students along the spectrum and appreciate the real contributions writers with ADHD have made to our culture.

Linda Hickson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Opportunities & Outcomes for People with Disabilities at Teachers College, Columbia University, spoke of decision-making skills that affect personal safety for people with intellectual disabilities (ID). In a study comparing adults with and without ID, she found those with the disability were far more likely to choose actions that involve risk and exposure to harm. Those with ID were also found to be more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to make effective decisions in threatening situations, but were more likely to report threats later. Self-protective decision-making can be taught. Goals and priorities include safety over popularity, avoidance of decisions with severe consequences, independence and empowerment, and valuing personal and social responsibility over peer pressure.

Marcia Singer, Ed.D., co-director of the Special Education Leadership program, and Diane Newman, Ph.D., program director of the Childhood Special Education program, both at Bank Street College of Education, discussed their study of how children on the autism spectrum use materials in novel ways to come up with non-verbal problem-solving strategies. Four activities were introduced: water play, magnets, balance scale, and battery-operated cars. Singer and Newman then recorded a variety of observations made while studying the children’s interactions with the activities, including cause and effect relationships, levels of abstraction and degrees of engagement. Some children were found to have skills but not know how or when to use them. Singer and Newman are developing a program to teach children on the spectrum to problem-solve in which teachers act more as facilitators or coaches rather than as instructors.

Vincent Carbone, Ed.D., a behavior analyst and founder and director of The Carbone Clinic, illustrated teaching eye contact as a language pragmatic skill to children with autism. Lack of eye contact, a basic social communicative component, is often seen as an early indicator of developmental problems. Carbone showed a video of his work with a 2-year old using “manding” (requesting) to teach the essential skill of eye contact. In a non-verbal interaction, Carbone only acknowledged the mand if it came with eye contact and only followed through, or rewarded, if eye contact was maintained.

A panel of special-needs children’s parents praised the committed teachers and other professionals at the conference. “We couldn’t do it without your help,” one said, but also admitted, “In the end, it’s a revolving door and we are the only ones who will be with our children forever.” Parents stressed the importance of getting an early, proper diagnosis and “learning as much as you can.” A child may need help despite not fitting the stereotype of those who need help. Other advice was to stay positive: remember that autism is a neuro-diversity, not a tragedy. Also, pick and choose your battles, emphasize a child’s strengths, and make sure to play and have fun with him or her. Show your child the joy you take in him or her. Finally, never treat your children as disabled; remind them of what they do that makes them exceptional.

It was a full day. Dr. Sue Lipkowitz of District 75 summed up the feelings of many. “This was the best conference on the subject I have attended—quality of speakers excellent, diverse program, new information, well organized.” Kathy Burris of Landmark College announced a blog about complementary assistive technology, which will be available at www.educationupdate.com.#



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