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An Alternative to High-Stakes Testing

Kerri Milyko

In the news, mom groups, and talk radio, people are talking about the “Opt Out” movement that is spreading across our country.  A good number of teachers and parents, not to mention students, are upset over the number and type of high-stakes tests that our students are required to take and are opting out of taking the tests.  While I would agree that some of these new, unverified, and/or poorly designed tests are not suited for our students when such serious consequences for both student and teacher are contingent upon their results, some form of testing is necessary for progress monitoring.  Reliable, objective progress monitoring should guide teacher instruction and intervention based upon the individual student.

Some schools in Hillsborough and Pasco counties are starting to use a beautiful progress monitoring tool for students on Level 2 or Level 3 RtI (see previous article about RtI). These assessments are called Curriculum Based Measurement (CBM) probes.  These assessments are derived from and closely resemble the current curriculum utilized in the classroom.  Furthermore, these assessments are administered for a brief time period (1 min to 5 min) on a more frequent basis (weekly) when compared to standardize testing.  CBM probes have been found to enhance individualized instruction, predict performance on targeted areas, improve teacher preparation, and serve as a test to recognize academically at risk students. Teachers may develop CBM probes independently or the school may purchase them from a company specializing in CBM generation.  Regardless of how the CBM probes are developed, they are extremely useful and available to all teachers. 

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When any test is given once, the utility is mostly one of reporting than of intervention.  This is the case for the FCAT, FSA, ITBS, PARCC, SAT, and other similar tests.  They are so long and burdensome for teacher and student that they are only administered once and cannot guide intervention.  All they can do is report if the child is on level at the end of the school year.  This is unlike the CBM.  The CBM, since administered briefly and weekly, can immediately report to the teacher if the student starts to fall behind other classmates, in what area, and that intervention is warranted to change progress.  During the first few weeks of CBM assessment, student performance on a CBM probe is plotted on a chart and a goal is set for where the teacher would like the student to reach by the end of the year.  The projected performance goal line is drawn on the graph.  Student progress, based on weekly CBM probes, is then evaluated with respect to a pre-established goal line (i.e., trend or learning line).  If CBM probe performance tracks the desired trajectory as displayed on each student’s chart, an instructional change is not necessary and the child’s performance is considered progressing at an appropriate rate. On the other hand, if behavior falls below the line, performance is deemed below grade level where an intervention is warranted.  Finally, if CBM probe performance exceeds what was anticipated, then a new goal is created based on the advanced performance. 

So, while we join the parents, teachers, and students in the frustration over high-stakes testing that serve very limited utility, we want to educate parents that an alternative is available.  Testing, progress monitoring, assessment or any other word you choose for objective evaluation is important.  But there is an unconventional replacement that can still serve the purpose for reporting student level, but does so more frequently so that it is functional to student and teacher behavior.

Carefully Select Your Words

Kerri Milyko

At Precision Teaching Learning Center, we see a good amount of students who feel defeated.  They compare their abilities to their peers and quickly see that they are in the “lower” group.  They hear from their parents and teachers, “Just try harder!” “Focus!”  They are ridiculed from their peers for reading slowly or counting on their fingers.  All of this then leads to a deflated student: “I’m not smart.  Why can’t I just be like everyone else?”  This situation is heart breaking, yet not uncommon.  It may be happening in your house and you don’t even know!

There is an inevitable link between academic skill performance, motivation, and self-esteem.  For example, one of our students hit a plateau with answering subtraction problems.  As an intervention, we changed how we praised her abilities through out her session: we used behavior specific praise by finding and celebrating the littlest details in her performance.  She kept on acknowledging how great she was doing and was praising herself!  When we approached her subtraction facts that day, she easily broke through that plateau and answered her facts twice as fast as she did the previous session!  It was a remarkable improvement and she knew it!  We cheered, gave high-fives, gave hugs, and talked about why it was so awesome.

Last December, our staff presented similar data at the International Precision Teaching Conference (a case study from this symposium will be published in the latest issue of Behavioral Development Bulletin, 2015, 20(2)).  In our symposium, we showed data of children who had lacked motivation and as a result, their academic performance was no longer improving at a rapid pace.  Therefore, we increased the frequency and amount of praise and reinforcement.  The performance of these students positively responded and regained their rapid acquisition rates. 

Our children are impressionable, sensitive, and listen even when you are unaware they are listening.  They are little sponges that take in so much of the world around them.  I can’t tell you how many times students have shared with us things they have observed at school: a teacher tearing up an inaccurate assignment; a parent who said, “I just don’t know what to do with you”; a sibling who said, “You’re stupid”; a teacher who said, “If he doesn’t care, I don’t care”; and another teacher who said, “If I had a nickel for the number of times I had to tell you how to answer this problem, I’d be rich!” 

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As parents and educators, what do we value?  Who do WE want to be?  I’m fairly certain that those statements are not in alignment with the parent and educator that you strive to be.  Are these the words you want your child repeating in his/her head, defining his/her self-perception?  We all have moments of weakness; but our children pick up on these moments and allow them to sink in.   For each slip-up of expressed frustration, make sure you give five behavior-specific praise statements to help build your child back up.

When you reach a moment of frustration and feel helpless and defeated, please give us a call.  We enjoy helping teachers and parents to build up children emotionally as well as academically.  We want our centers to be a place of refuge where our students feel secure, empowered, and confident.  We would love to help you build your school and household to function as such a place as well.

Become The Cookie

Kerri Milyko

Recently, I have had the fortunate opportunity to observe teachers and parents interact with their students/children in multiple settings.  I either walk away eager to offer some corrective feedback or exhilarated that I just witnessed a master at his/her craft!  While many variables influence my general perspective following an observation, the essential one is with respect to praise.  Praise, loosely defined, is a positive statement.  Some examples of general praise statements include the following: well done, good job, I like how you ____.  While the field of Behavior Analysis stresses the importance of behavior-specific praise to shape behavior, I’m going to just talk about general praise.  When I’m in a classroom or a house that is void of praise, any praise would be better than no praise at all.

At our learning center, and in classrooms and centers across the world utilizing Behavior Analysis, often external reinforcement (e.g., tokens, cookies, stickers) are required to increase motivation for work completion, accuracy, and/or fluency.  The term “become the cookie” indicates that spending time with the teacher or therapist is so reinforcing that an external reinforcer is no longer required.  Instead of giving cookies, the teacher is the cookie.  Just the mere presence of the teacher is good enough - and motivating.

Many parents and teachers are really good at identifying/noticing the undesirable behavior: talking out of turn, getting out of the chair, fighting during homework time.  When so much focus is placed on eliminating those behaviors, it becomes easy to overlook the good behaviors when they occur.  Some people even assume that the student “should” be engaging in those appropriate behaviors anyway, eliminating the “need” to attend to them.  This creates an environment that is built upon suppression and working to just avoid reprimand instead of one that facilitates creativity, problem solving, and self-worth. 

Conversely, an environment that is rich in praise is uplifting.  Even as an observer, one can walk away feeling good even though he/she was not specifically praised.  The one delivering the praise not only attends to the appropriate behaviors as a form of classroom/household management, but also models the behavior of a good, caring citizen of the world.   My 3.5-year-old daughter walks around the playground praising her peers for their slide, swing, and climbing techniques., even when she doesn't know their names.

At Precision TLC, we keep data on our instructors’ praise during training and employee audits.  We aim for one authentic, behavior-specific praise statement every 1-2 min during a session.  We require so much from our students and we should, therefore, require a lot from ourselves.  Only when we provide an environment of empowerment, encouragement and support are we able to efficiently improve academic behaviors.  We see it daily in the data we religiously collect.

As a teacher or a parent, I challenge you to count the number of praise statements you say in a period of 10 minutes.  Keep a tally on an event counter or a sticky note.  How does your frequency compare to our criterion at the center?  Further, be aware of what you are requiring from your student(s).  Are you asking first graders to sit silently for 20 min and write a paragraph?  Are you asking a third grader to independently complete a 6-step long division problem?  These are difficult tasks for these students and as such, deserve even more praise!  Walk around the room and commend the students on their handwriting, added details, and focus on the task at hand.  Collectively exalt the fact that the children were working for 2 min in absolute silence! 

When a parent/teacher thinks more about what he/she can praise versus what he/she can reprimand, the behavior of the teacher/parent instantly changes.  As a result, the students' behavior also changes.  If you do not have the desire or time to read the research on praise and reinforcement, the beaming smiles of pride and accomplishment on your student’s face will be proof enough that using ample amounts of praise is an effective classroom/household management system.     

Precision Teaching Meets Response to Intervention: A Scientific Investigation

Kerri Milyko

When describing our services to educators, we say that we are a Tier 4 intervention to the Response to Intervention (RtI) frame work that the school employs for student who are struggling with learning in the typical classroom setting (Tier 1) (see our blog for more information about RtI, PBS, and MTSS: http://www.precisiontlc.com/blog/2013/7/22/it-takes-a-village-mtss-in-schools.html).  It is rather tongue-in-cheek since RtI consists of only Tiers 1-3, with Tier 3 being the most intensive intervention.  While working on a grant at USF, our own Samantha Spillman, M.A., completed her thesis looking at how Precision Teaching and Direct Instruction serve as beautiful Tier 3 interventions to children struggling with math in the public schools.  We would like to take this month’s blog to describe her study with the hopes that some teacher and/or RtI Team would implement this or something similar with their students.

Five exceptionally struggling 1st graders were recruited to participate in the study.  All five students were “failing” their math class and required intensive intervention.  They met the study’s inclusion criteria of being significantly inaccurate and slow at answering simple addition facts.  These students were pulled from their class for no more than 10 min, 3 days a week to participate in the study.

Two interventions were examined with respect to students’ accuracy and fluency (speed + accuracy) on addition facts.  The first intervention was simple error correction following the practice interval.  The second intervention required a direct instruction, multi-sensory (multiple learning channel) 1-min priming.  Therefore, the students said, pointed, and wrote answers to addition problems they heard or read.

When compared to baseline classroom performance, the first intervention of error correction improved the accuracy for four of the five participants.  However, their speed at answering math facts was still quite low (ranging from 5-8 facts correctly answered per minute).  Upon intervention of the direct-instruction, multi-channel warm-up, all students not only performed at 100% accuracy on these math facts, their speed immediately jumped to 10-20 correctly answered facts per minute, rising to 25-45 per minute at the end of three weeks (9, 10-min sessions). 

Precision teachers for years have been preaching about the powerful effects of our technology; so, the robust effects of the multi-learning channel intervention were not a surprise to our community.  What was more powerful than the improvement on the trained skill (math facts, adding with 3’s) were the results on untrained skills.  Spillman assessed the application of these students’ learning on inverse addition facts (e.g., Commutative Property), math facts containing larger numbers, and grade-level addition/subtraction facts on a Curriculum Based Measurement assessment.  For all five participants, accuracy and speed increased on all of these untargeted measures. 

There are numerous implications of this study, with the most basic of them all being that Spillman created an effective Tier 3 intervention to aid with improving grade-level computation skills for 1st graders.  This intervention could be slightly edited to have a small group participate in the multi-learning channel warm-up on possibly new or troublesome math facts prior to their math lesson for the day.  Even a slightly few more revisions to the intervention could entail a Tier 1 intervention of having all of the students pointing, saying, writing to math facts that they see or hear, collectively as a group.

Even more generally, a global implication is that refined behavior analysts are trained at not just solving behavior crises.  BCBAs are equipped with the knowledge and techniques to participate in creating interventions to improve academic performance.  The BCBAs who are employed by school districts spend most, if not all, of their time dealing with problem behavior.  However, they are being underutilized.  If education could open its doors to allowing behavior analysts, particularly precision teachers, to participate in Response to Intervention teams, we could really make a profound impact on student performance.   We would love a seat at the table; all they have to do is ask.

 

More Than Pictures

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

I recently sat in an IEP where the teacher suggested the use of pictorial aids to assist a 1st grader in reading.  While the intention is good, and she reported having great success with this strategy, I saw the red flags a mile away.  At Precision Teaching Learning Center, our students never see a picture.  Most of the stories they read are simple text on a page without pictures.  The Bob Book quick readers we utilize have minimal stick figure pictures that we cover with our hands to shift the focus back on the words. 

There are a few problems to relying on pictures to decipher words.  The first and most prevalent issue is that not every word has an appropriate picture for pairing.  Further, if a picture is available, it may not address all of the words on the page.  Two words that our students frequently confuse are “went” and “want”.  The picture could be of a little girl in a candy store.  The page could read, “Suzzie went to the candy store.  She told the clerk, “I want a lollypop, please.”  The picture does not assist the student with anything other than “candy store” and possibly “lollypop”.  The picture doesn’t help the student identify the 10 remaining words on the page.  It further doesn’t help him/her discriminate between the troublesome “went” vs. “want”. 

The next big red flag that pops up is with respect to fading the stimulus control.  When we teach kids to attend to the pictures to assist them in reading, it is the picture that controls the student’s reading ability.  If we want them to truly read, that control needs to shift to the actual word, letters in the word, pattern of letters in the word, and the letter sounds.  Even if there was some sort of picture that could assist with “went”/”want”, “say”/”saw”, or “eat”/”ate”/”at”, what happens when that picture is not available?  Users of this strategy assume that the continual pairing of picture to word will inevitably transfer the stimulus control from the picture to the word.  Maybe it will; maybe it won’t.  Research shows that systematic stimulus fading aids with this shift where the original stimulus is lighter in color or becomes smaller, for example.  However, this fading procedure is not possible when it is a random picture in a book.  Teachers utilizing this intervention essentially “train and hope” with all fingers crossed that the child learns how to read the actual word in the absence of the picture.

Finally, this technique actually reinforces guessing, which is a really hard habit to break.  The student will select a word that may be contextually accurate according to the picture but is nowhere near the topography of the actual word written on the page.  For example, the student may read “forest” instead of “tree”.  Here, the student is completely relying on the picture and didn’t even take the first step in problem solving using the actual word.

While this step may help with that one word for that one story on that one occasion with that one student, it rarely teaches the child to actually read the words in future settings unless a very systematic fading procedure is utilized.  Some students may not require such intensive interventions.  However, if a teacher is employing this technique, the circumstances are likely that the student struggles with reading and requires extra resources.  In my opinion, it is better to teach that student the phonetic rules, the irregular vowel combinations, syllabication, and other strategies that can be applied and generalized.  This way, you are building an amazing metaphorical box of strategies the student can rely on to attack novel words instead of praying he/she encounters a really descriptive picture in the next book.

As always, if your child tends to rely on pictures more than words, give us a call.  We would love to help build your child’s box of reading strategies to overcome these hurdles to reading fluency!

Math Fact Fluency is Essential

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

In nearly all of my parent meetings, I hear about Common Core.  My response attempts to educate parents between the difference between the standards themselves and the curricula various publishing companies create that align to those standards.  The methods of each curriculum may vary.  Today, I will not be speaking about the standards themselves – that debate is only solved if you have the solution to poverty.  Instead, I am going to address some methods the new curricula are teaching.

One of the standards for 2nd grade simply states, “Fluently add and subtract within 20 using mental strategies.  By end of Grade 2, know from memory all sums of two one-digit numbers.”  I assume no one has any qualms with this.  Other 2nd grade math standards simply state that the students should be able to use place value while adding/subtracting as well.  So, if Sally knows that 2 + 3 = 5, she should be able to extrapolate that 20 + 3 = 23, 20 + 30 = 50, and so on.  However, it is the funky problems like the above image that leave parents frustrated.  We have seen these examples floating around the Internet.  Don’t blame the standard.  Blame the curriculum.

New curricula are aimed more at the discovery process.  This shift stems from studies in developmental psychology where children interact with novel toys (e.g., Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Schultz, 2011).  Those children who were not directly taught how to play with the toy used the toy in more creative ways than those children who were given a rule.  However, math is not a toy – there is a clear end result.  For example, 32-12 will always equal 20.  The process by which individuals reach that answer may be different; however, the answer is always 20.  This is unlike the toy study where the end result (i.e., function of the toy) could vary.  These curricula, focused on creativity and discovery, encourage students to find different ways to seek out the answer.  The above example is just one method.  Others may use the traditional algorithm 99% of us learned how to use.  Others, may subtract 10 two times to reach 12. 

The problem with this format is that many kids lack number sense.  They lack the mathematical equivalent to phonics where they can pictures smaller numbers making up larger numbers and the relationship between them all.  Further, these kids will create unique but erroneous rules to reach the answer.  I had one student work on a problem like 31-9.  She said she found the answer (which is 22), by subtracting the 1 from the 3 and then writing it twice.  Yup – that method will give you 22.  However, that rule does not extend to 32-9 and other problems. 

I have also witnessed teachers and trainers say that student no longer need to quickly know their math facts since everyone is walking around with smart phones with calculators on their hips.   Do I need to even address why this is a silly statement?  I can’t tell you how many middle and high school students I have worked with who either don’t understand how to solve a simple equation or consistently solve it incorrectly because of the lack of simple math fact fluency.

A recently published neurological study shows that math fluency creates new connections to the hippocampus, the memory region of the brain (Qin, Chao, Chen, Rosenberg-Lee, Geary, & Menon, 2014).  Therefore, as students gain math fact proficiency, new pathways are created allowing for ease in retrieval.  The authors of the study state that “If your brain doesn't have to work as hard on simple maths, it has more working memory free to process the teacher's brand-new lesson on more complex math,” which is a observation my colleagues and I have been stating for years.

Therefore, if we truly focus on building math fact fluency, it can make permanent changes to how students think.  Further, it will allow them, given their established foundation, to see how they can extrapolate these numbers and use other methods (like image above) to reach the same conclusion.  Start with the rule; then, focus on deriving more creative methods using place value and number sense.

To help do this at home, Rocket Math came out with a free app a few months ago to build math fact fluency.  It is pretty good.  For the younger kiddos, Endless Numbers incorporate not only number recognition but also counting, skip counting, place value, and addition to start a foundation for number sense.  These are just two examples in a sea of education apps.  For those students who struggle with number sense and math facts using apps, call us.  We would love to help!

 

 

 

Preparing for School - More than you likely expect

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

No – I’m not talking about preparing your student to go back to school.  This blog has addressed that subject repeatedly.  I’m talking about getting your very little one ready for school – the one who isn’t in Kindergarten yet (or even pre-K).

Too often, I see children in Kindergarten and beginning 1st grade who are already behind.  Even stellar pre-K programs do not necessarily equip students for the academic rigor of the following school year.  It is up to the parents to provide the extra exposure and practice for the student to be ready for Kindergarten or 1st grade.  Many times, students fall behind early just because parents are unaware of the expectations of students starting school.  This is the group we are addressing in this month’s blog.  (This does not include those students who may need professional direct instruction due to a significant deficit or possible learning disability).

Long gone are the days when Kindergarten focused simply on letter people, sharing, listening to the teacher, and sensory play.  With the incorporation of Common Core, many states including Florida have new, higher academic standards for K-3 grades.  For public school, students should be able to read short vowel words and Doltch pre-primer and primer sight words by the end of Kindergarten.  First grade will briefly revisit short vowel words, but will quickly target words with long vowels, consonant blends/digraphs, and regular vowel combinations at a minimum (a simple Google search will result in some decent practice lists).  Although these are state standards, variance still exists across schools – even public schools.  I visited a public Kindergarten class in New Tampa targeting second-grade phonetic words.   Private schools tend to be even more rigorous than public schools.  Various private schools in Tampa expect students to be proficient phonetic readers by mid-first grade!

Whether or not you agree with the new standards or feel that too much is being expected too early from your student, this is the new culture in private, public, and even charter schools (who are held to the same standards as public school or they lose their charter).  Unless you plan on homeschooling, which is a great option for some families, your student may run the risk of being held back, placed in the lower reading group, or placed in special education if you do not incorporate focused reading practice at home.

To equip yourself, I encourage you to read the standards.  They can be found at http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/.  You can be a better support to both your future student and his/her teacher by being aware of the expectations.  If you find that you serve better as a parent than a teacher, call us.  We would love to help!

Flexible Responding

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

Parenthood is so fun.  Our oldest is nearly 2.5 years old and is learning many new things: pre-reading skills, vocabulary, sentence formation, gross and fine motor skills.  Ethan and I are having the best time teaching our daughter and seeing her love for learning develop. 

While working with Kaelin, we recognize various opportunities to help promote her to flexibly respond to things and events.  We see similar, yet more sophisticated, opportunities when working with our students at the center.  Flexible responding is engaging in different behavior to the same stimuli while being sensitive to the contextual cues.  It can be as simple as seeing “A” and saying the letter sound instead of the letter name.  It can be as complex as teaching a student to “go with the flow.” 

Often, students only learn one way to respond to academic stimuli.  For example, the student can just write one main idea of a story, knows 6+7 but not 7+6, or can only describe traditional functions of a pencil.  In all of these examples, the student lacks the flexible responding to help build further connections to respond in different ways than what was explicitly taught.   When your child lacks this flexibility, complications may arise in the classroom.

You can help target flexibility at home.  With our daughter, we are asking her multiple questions about one word she reads: What is the last letter in the word?  What sound does the first letter make?  What is this word?  Give me an example of the word.  So, if the word is “kitten” she would respond with “n” (letter name), “k” (letter sound), read the word “kitten”, and then tell me about Katerina Kittycat from her favorite show, Daniel Tiger.  All of these great responses can occur while just seeing the one word, “kitten.”

This flexibility is essential in every subject area.  While I’m one to join in on the Common Core criticism, it seems as if some the curricula are attempting to target the same principle, especially the math.  While looking at a number, say 3,451, the student can not only read it, but understand that that the entire thing is a number made up of 4 digits, the “4” digit is in the hundreds position and has a value of 400 or four one-hundreds, 40 tens, or 400 ones.  Flexible responding in math can be classified as “number sense.”  

You can try it out with your older student.  For example, instead of having your child always respond to the front side of the flash cards when studying for a test, quiz him/her with the back side of the card in a Jeopardy fashion.  Instead of creating a main idea from a story he/she read, start with a main idea and develop different stories that could share a main idea.  If your student takes one position about a scenario, see if they could play Devil’s advocate to see the opposing position’s perspective.

This type of flexible responding is essential for complete mastery and proficiency of academic material.  To truly know something, you should be able to respond to that material in multiple, intricate ways as opposed to a simple memorized, rote fashion.  There is an extremely important role for rote memorization; however, following that step, more complex, flexible responding needs to be further established for true mastery.

If your student seems to be stuck in a rut with learning and is not flexible with his/her academic material, give us a call!  We would love to work with your student to promote true mastery.  Our systematic approach continually tests for flexible responding and is designed to promote it if not developed naturally. 

It Takes a Village: MTSS in Schools

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

This summer, we have been writing about how it takes a village to help a student excel in school.  We mentioned things that you can do at home to help build motivation and set clear, consistent expectations and consequences for your child’s performance.  Now that it is August, your child will be going back to school where his/her teachers will spend the majority of time working towards making your student proficient at various academic skills.  This month, we will address the school’s Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) used to aid struggling students in general education to catch up to their peers. 

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) defines MTSS as “a term used to describe an evidence-based model of schooling that uses data-based problem-solving to integrate academic and behavioral instruction and intervention. “  This is a relatively new term that combines Response to Intervention (RtI) (a systematic intervention to aid students academically) and Positive Behavior Support (PBS) (a systematic intervention to aid students behaviorally).  As a critic of the traditional school system, I must applaud FDOE for pioneering the way to include data-based decision-making in the schools.  MTSS’s origins are rooted in Behavior Analysis - the branch of psychology we use at Precision TLC – and when used with fidelity, the students’ performance thrives. 

Let’s look at the academic side to MTSS.  There are 3 tiers of support that increase in intensity of intervention: Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3.  Tier 1 is a mild, blanketed intervention that is used for all students in a general classroom.  It ensures that if academics are not inline with the new Common Core Standards, the teacher can implement a mild intervention to help raise performance.  This can simply be a basic positive reinforcement intervention included in the classroom, for example a token economy.  In this example, the teacher would walk around the classroom with little plastic coins and distribute them to all students working diligently.  At the end of the day, the students could exchange their coins for little prizes.

After Tier 1 has been implemented for a time, and some students are still struggling with their performance, an additional layer of intervention would be added to Tier 1.  Tier 2 is a supplement to Tier 1 and is a bit more focused on the problem at hand.  For example, let’s say a teacher introduced a new lesson about fractions.  She already has a token-economy in place to make sure each child is focused when completing their class work.  However, a group of 5 students just are not grasping the difference between adding and multiplying fractions.  For a Tier 2 intervention, the teacher could take these 5 students to the side and give them more instruction and/or practice to allow their performance to rise to the levels of the other students in the classroom.   Therefore, the general classroom teacher or a supplemental teacher, in or outside of the classroom, can administer Tier 2. 

The last level of intervention is Tier 3.  Again, in addition to Tiers 1 & 2, Tier 3 serves to remedy the barrier to academic proficiency.  Tier 3 is very similar to Tier 2; however, Tier 3 is simply more intense.  Therefore, the teacher could still pull a few students to the side for more time or more focused instruction.  Yet, the time will be longer and the instruction will be more precise with Tier 3.  Further, the group will be smaller (1-3 students) allowing for specific instruction and error correction for each individual student.

When MTSS is administered with fidelity, data are taken at each level to ensure teachers and their supervisors are doing all they can to be flexible with student learning while not allowing any student to fall between the cracks.  You can ask for these data during your meetings with teachers to see how your child responds to these various levels of intervention.  So, when you ask the teacher, “How is my child doing?” you can now talk about various forms of interventions with respect to the 3 Tiers of MTSS.  You can probe the teacher by asking what type of intervention is currently in place for Tier 1 and does my student need to be elevated to a Tier 2 level of intervention? 

Unfortunately, many schools are not implementing MTSS with fidelity.  There are extensive tests and checks that are being conducted within the school district to see if even Tier 1 is being used, let alone the other tiers and other aspects of MTSS we did not mention in this article.  Therefore, you may need to take matters into your own hands and provide supplemental academic services to enhance your child’s skills so that he/she can be successful in the classroom.  We at Precision TLC would love to help you with that! 

Click here to read more about MTSS

It Takes a Village: Competing Motivations

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

Last month we talked about the “won’t do problem.”  This is when a student does not engage in the behavior of interest not because he/she does not have the proper component skills to perform the task; it is because the environment is not arranged to help facilitate proper motivation to engage in the task.  And remember, we never “blame” the student.  The student is properly behaving with respect to his/her surrounding environmental variables.  If your child knows that there are no consequences for engaging in the task, why should he/she bother to put forth the energy to complete the task?

This month, we are talking about situations where motivation is present; yet, a student may be more motivated to engage in a competing behavior instead of the one you want.  For example, let’s say Amy does not refuse to complete homework and on occasion will complete her homework without asking.  However, on Thursdays, it is always a fight to get her to focus on her homework because her favorite show is on at 6:00pm.  She gets so distracted by even the thought of the show that her focus is rarely on her homework.  You may even have a systematic behavioral plan set up at home where she earns prizes or playtime for completing her homework.  But on Thursday, that plan seems to loose its power.

In this example, you wouldn’t necessarily say that Amy lacks motivation or drive to complete her homework at home.  You wouldn’t necessarily say that homework time is something of which either of you are fearful.  However, for one day, because of one event, Amy doesn’t resemble the “Amy during homework time” you see on any other day.  On Thursdays, it is more reinforcing for Amy to simply think about the Thursday night show than it is to complete homework and receive her reinforcer for homework completion.

There are two things that you can do in this scenario: 1) find a more powerful reinforcer for homework completion on Thursday or 2) use the Premak Principle.  The first solution is simple.  If your student works for points that are then exchanged for various items off of a reinforcer menu (e.g., iPad time, TV time, sleepover, dessert), then Thursday can be “double points day!” Tijuana Flats has “Taco Tuesdays.”  College bars have “Ladies Drink Free Thursdays.”  These specials are regular incentives that help attract customers to these establishments.  You can have your own special at you house!  This way, you are being proactive to help avoid the inevitable endless prompts and redirections you encounter on Thursdays.

The second solution is called the Premak Principle.  You probably already use Premak but have never known what it was called other than “good parenting!”  This is when you make a highly preferred event (watching the Thursday TV show) contingent upon completion of a less preferred event (completing homework).   Therefore, Amy does not get to watch her show until her homework is finished.  Watching the TV show, although it may be a family event, shouldn’t be a “free” luxury if homework is either not completed or you have to fight tooth and nail for its completion.  We all work for the luxuries in our life, and this should not be a life lesson that is learned at a later age.

Remember, it takes a village to change the life of a child.  And while school and supplemental services, like Precision Teaching Learning Center, are essential in that transformation, the parent plays the most important role.  Setting clear expectations for the behavior you want your student to engage in, and being consistent with the consequences (positive and negative) that follow that behavior are things that should come as second nature in your home.  If you need help with setting up a behavioral system in your home, please call our office at 778-5201!

 

It Takes a Village: Motivation at Home

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

At Precision TLC, we are able to make significant gains with a learner’s ability to read, write, compute, reason, and learn in a short period of time.  Through our use of customized Independent Learning Plans, individualized curriculum, and practice of behavior analytic techniques including reinforcement, these gains are possible.  Sometimes, however, these gains may not be evident in all settings.  In other words, after we fixed the “can’t do problem,” parents may encounter a “won’t-do problem.” 

Over the summer, we will write about why the “won’t do problem” will creep up when there is no longer a “can’t do problem.”  This month, we will target the first and most important reason: motivation.

The largest reason why students may engage in sloppy performance or even work refusal in the presence of their parents and not in our presence is the lack of motivation at home.  At Precision TLC, each student has a performance goal (a combination of accuracy and speed goals).  Once that goal is achieved, the student accesses a reinforcer.  This reinforcer is something that is powerful.  Examples of reinforcers we use at the center include points that can be exchanged for playtime, gift cards, candy, and snacks.   See our blog about reinforcement for a reminder about the difference between rewards and reinforcers.

I can already hear half of you sigh and say, “but I don’t want to bribe my student to do something that she should do independently.”  I can sympathize with this notion.  However, if motivation is lacking, and the punishment, time-outs, taking things away, bargaining, and other stressful resolutions are not working, maybe it is time to bring in some external motivators.  By pairing the external motivators with the academic skill, you are building the internal motivation so that these external motivators, or reinforcers, can slowly be removed.

Further, if I withheld your paycheck for your job, would you still go?  We live in a world where our performance is reinforced.  Money is a huge generalized reinforcer for our work performance.  Each student’s job is going to school and completing assignments.  However, we are expecting them to work for free because it is their “duty” with the reinforcer being getting a good job or going to college.  I can guarantee that a job and college are not motivators for 99% of students under the 8th grade.

Another concern I hear from parents not wanting to incorporate a reinforcement system at home is “he is just manipulating me to get what he wants.”  Actually, you are controlling the situation.  If handing a little skittle over to a student will result tear-free, negotiating-free, yelling-free, threatening-free 10 min of focused homework time, do you not think it is worth it?  Once your student is successful at that first 10 min and subsequent 10 min intervals of focused, accurate work, then you can increase the exchange.  Now 12, 15, and 20 min are required for that one skittle.  This system can be faded to the point that the skittle is no longer involved in the process.  Sometimes you have to loose a battle to win the war.

Further, effective and powerful teachers employ reinforcement systems in their classrooms.  With the new Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) that Tampa schools now employ, a class-wide reinforcement system is considered a Tier 1 intervention that all students, struggling or not, will encounter.  It is an evidence-based procedure that has phenomenal outcomes.  See our August 2013 Blog about MTSS.

 

Reinforcers vs. Rewards

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

We talk about reinforcers quite frequently on our blog; but do you know exactly what it is?  Further, what differentiates reinforcers from rewards?  Today, we are going to clearly separate the two notions with some real world examples so that you can utilize reinforcement in your home and classroom and not just rewards.

The casual observer may not notice any difference between reinforcers and rewards.  Someone does something and they get something they like after the behavior occurs.  This is true for both reinforcers and rewards. 

The fundamental difference, however, lies in what happens after that “good thing” is delivered.  If it makes no impact on future behavior, then it is a reward.  If it increases the likelihood that behavior will occur again in the future, thus increasing its frequency, you utilized reinforcement.

One chore I despise is unloading the dishwasher.  I've felt this way for as long as I can remember.  Being a behavior analyst, I thought I’d be slick and utilize some reinforcement at home so that I wouldn’t have to perform this chore I loathe.  One day, I caught my husband unloading the dishwasher and I piled on the praise: “This is so great!  Thank you so much for helping.  You are such a good husband.”  I even gave him a big smooch when he was done with the chore. 

The two potential reinforcers or rewards that I delivered in the above scenario were praise statements and a kiss.  If the praise and kiss functioned as reinfocers, my husband will unload the dishwasher more frequently, maybe without me asking.  If they were just rewards for the behavior, I would still have to continually ask him to do the chore and it would occur at the same frequency prior to the reward. 

You can also identify reinforcers by what happens when they are removed from a situation.  If a reward is removed, the behavior will not change.  For example, if I no longer received the “participation ribbon” for the swim team as a child, I would have continued to swim on the team.  The ribbon did not motivate me to participate; nor did it have an effect on how much effort I put towards practicing.  It was merely a reward.

However, if you went to work one day and a paycheck was handed to everyone but you, I assume after a period of time (and after a bunch of strongly-worded emails) you would find another job.  The paycheck reinforced your behavior of going to work and potentially how well you performed your job.  Therefore, the money functioned as a reinforcer.

Using rewards is nice.  You are a generous person if you provide rewards.  If your goal is to change behavior, however, then the use of rewards is futile.  You need to find something that is powerful and strong enough to change behavior: a reinforcer.  If behavior is not affected by the consequence of the student receiving the “good item”, then it is not a reinforcer.  Plain and simple. 

FCAT, Retention, and Your Options

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

It’s that time of year when the parents of every 3rd grader cringe.  Waiting until May to get the results from the teacher with the added qualifier of whether or not your student is allowed to progress to 4th grade is close to torture.  So much importance is placed on the 3rd grade reading portion of the FACT since it dictates whether or not your student will advance to 4th grade. 

Last year, 17-19% of 3rd graders in Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas Counties received a “1” on the FCAT (www.fldoe.org).   According to the Florida Department of Education, a score of “1” suggests “minimum success with grade-level content”.  Therefore, teachers of these students would notify the parents that the student would be retained to repeat the 3rd grade.  So, your child’s future lies in the hands of 1 lonely test score?  What if your student was sick when he/she took the test?  What if he/she didn’t have decent sleep the night before the reading section?  What if your student was too distracted by his/her classmate tapping her pencil on the desk?  What if your student just had an off-day?  There are a few other avenues that the teacher and student can take to increase the student’s chances to progress to 4th grade.

The first option is to have your student’s reading teacher compile a portfolio of the student’s work demonstrating proficiency of grade level work that is equivalent to an FCAT score of “2”.  The portfolio must meet five criteria: 1) the work is selected by the student’s teacher, 2) the work is an accurate picture of the student’s independent ability (classroom work), 3) comprehension work covers 60% narrative stories and 40% expository stories averaging 500 words per story, 4) the work meets the Sunshine State Standard Benchmarks (3 work examples for each benchmark at 70% or above), and 5) the portfolio must be signed by the principal validating it as an accurate assessment of reading.

A second option is for the student to take an alternative standardized assessment such as the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).  If a student performs over 45th percentile on the reading portion of these tests, the school has to accept the SAT or ITBS score over the FCAT score and promote the student according to Florida law.  Further, if the student did not perform well on the first administration of the standardized test, he/she may take it again 30 days later.  As a parent, you will have to find someone who is certified to administer these tests.  Luckily, at Precision TLC, we are able to administer these tests for you!  Natalie Mendoza, M.A., who we luckily have on staff, is a certified teacher and able to administer these tests.  Please click here to learn more about Natalie and how to schedule a standardlized test.

Click here to read the Flordia law statutes addressing these options in detail.

Click here to read a flyer from FL DOE regarding FCAT Frequently Asked Questions.

If you follow our blog, you know that we are not strong advocates for one-shot-in-the-dark standardized tests.  Yet they seem to be unavoidable in the public school system.  We, therefore, have decided to use these tests to work the system at the school’s level according to Florida law.  If you receive a request for a parent-teacher conference to review FCAT scores and you are even slightly nervous about the discussion of retention, then print this blog out and bring it to the meeting.  Be an advocate for your child and not accept retention if you do not believe it is in the best interest for your student.  Exhaust all options so that your child can be promoted!

Fast, but not too fast, right?

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

In my recent interactions with parents and teachers, I've noticed a common trend in the critique of a student's performance: “they just go too fast.”  In our world of behavioral fluency, going fast is one of our goals.  The slow, methodical student may not be performing the academic skill at a speed that will result in a permanent product resistent to regression. 

We all know by now that a fluent behavior needs to be not only accurate but performed at an unhesistant speed.  When performance is at these fluent levels of speed and accuracy, that skill is able to be retained, endured, and applied to more complex skills and situations.  Therefore, if the student is slow while reading words or solving math problems, he/she may not perform the skill at the fluent levels to ensure retention, endurance, and application, even if the skill is accurate. 

Yesterday, I was working with one of my clients.  This Kindergartner was reading 2-digit numbers.  In my attempt to motivate her, I mentioned the importance of going fast.  Her reply to me was, “Fast, but not too fast, right?” 

Again, I was confronted with the common notion prescribed by teachers and parents: “Take your time.  Don't rush.”  However, this suggestion is only given to those students who go fast and are inaccurate.  Rarely, if ever, would you see a teacher or a parent tell a student with accurate performance to slow down.  On the contrary, that student would be described as a top student, advanced for his/her class because he/she can quickly and accurately finish assignments. 

However, I understand the intention behind the request to go slow.  It is to ensure careful, accurate peformance.  My 1-year old daughter has a toy walker that comments, “Please go slow” as she ushers it across our living room.  But do I want her to walk slowly, maintaining the speed of a beginner?  Of course not.  She would likely not become a proficient walker, stumbling down frequently as it is more difficult to walk at a slower pace than at a fast pace.  If she was a slow walker, she probably would never become an athlete of any kind.  Further, slow walking may not build up her cardiovascular endurance to perform other unrelated tasks.  So, no.  My goal is not for her to walk slowly and carefully.

We can apply the same thought to academics.  If your child takes her time spelling, then she may take longer to write sentences and paragraphs.  Writing stories and essays may be challenging because she is stopping to ponder of the spelling of so many words.  Further, she may not quickly learn the concepts of grammar or how to embellish her prose with adjectives or anaphoras because she is so keenly focused on spelling.

Further, research indicates that careless, unsystematic errors dissipate when performance is at optimal speed levels.  So, unless it is an extremely new concept, or the student is making the same mistake repeatedly, ignoring the error (or mildy addressing it while having the student self correct) may be appropriate.

Therefore, my plea is this: please do not request students to slow down or take their time.  Our request should be to go as fast as you can, and don't worry if make a mistake here or there.  We can address those mistakes seperately if they are an issue.  Our suggestion should be to not guess but to use the tool skills the child has in his/her repertoire to attack each problem.  Our goal should be to build fluent, not just accurate, performance to ensure retention, endurance, and application.  We want to create atheletes, not just accurate walkers.

What a Year!

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

Happy New Year!  We first want to thank New Tampa and Wesley Chapel for making 2012 an amazing year.  With 2012 being our only second year in business, we have added to our small staff and are continuing to change the lives of the students that we work with!  We couldn't be happier.

We like to start with sharing the successes of our students.  They are the reason that we do what we do!  We recently ran a 20-hour math assessment with one of our 2nd grade students.  She improved on ALL targets on her reassessment!  She came to us counting on her fingers and is now saying math facts around 50-80 problems in a minute.  Further, she is able to tell time and count money values where she was unable to do that before.  Her parents told us they were seeing an improvement in not only her math performance but in her confidence as well after just 13 hours on one-on-one instruction!

During the fall, we also worked with a student with an Autism diagnosis.  He was pulled from his typical classroom to be with other special education students at his school.  We worked on skills targeting reading comprehension and appropriate classroom behaviors.  Although he still needed additional time to improve his reading comprehension, he was placed back into his regular classroom at the end of the 40-hour enrollment!

At the beginning of the year, we worked with a Kindergarten student.  It was very likely that he was going to be held back in Kindergarten and his parents were looking for a quick solution to prevent retention.  Before we worked with him, he knew 33% of his consonant letter sounds and 20% of vowel letter sounds while saying these sounds at a speed of 4 sounds per min.  At the end of 40-hours, he was responding at 100% accuracy and 60-80 sounds per minute!  Needless to say, before we started working with him, he was a non-reader and could not blend the letter sounds to form a word.  By the end of his 40-hour enrollment, not only could he blend words at 90% accuracy (78 sounds and words per min), but could also read short vowel words (a 1st grade target) at 67% accuracy (16 words per min).

We are so thrilled by our students’ continued progress that our staff has grown.  In addition to Dr. Kerri and Ethan, our staff included Elizabeth Hasbrouck, a master’s student at USF.  In the Spring, she was promoted to Case Manager where she supervises the progress of a few students as she completes her Master’s Thesis in Precision Teaching!  Further, we took on another USF master’s student, Victoria Hoch, as an intern in early September.  After 4 long months of a rigorous and exhaustive training schedule, she will begin Jan 2013 as our new independent instructor!  We of course had to get the approval of our students before we made it official.  Luckily, they gave her an A+ too!  We have now taken on another intern, Samantha Spillman, who is also a first-year master's student at USF.  Teaching others how to transform the lives of students in a profound way is something we enjoy, as you can tell.

This upcoming year is looking to be an exciting one for us.  We are finalizing the necessary paperwork to accept insurance for our services when working with students with an Autism diagnosis.  An announcement will be made once that is process is complete.  Further, we seek to extend our services to more private schools that do not have the resources to work with students who are not excelling in a normal classroom structure.  If your student attends a private school in the Tampa area and you would like for him/her to receive our services during school hours, please ask your principal, as we would love the opportunity to help.  Finally, we look forward to creating the opportunity and success in the lives of children in the Tampa area as we have been doing for the past two years. 

Writing Exercise

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

I had fun today with one of our writing students at Precision Teaching Learning Center in Tampa!  He had to write instructions of how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I then followed up with the bread, peanut butter, and jelly and put his words into action.  It is amazing the type of "sandwiches" you can make when the instructions are missing steps and details.  Have fun with your student and see if he/she can write detailed instructions on how to do a simple task he/she does every day.  You both will laugh at the result when there is a step missing and you end up with a sandwhich with no filling.  Enjoy!

Workshop

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

While on "vacation", Dr. Kerri and Jeff attended a 2-day workshop for organization business management last week.  This workshop was specifically designed for the Standard Celeration Society (SCS), the non-profit interest group that focuses on Precision Teaching of which Dr. Kerri is the President.  They learned how to create an internal blueprint of the organization, process maps, detailed and functional job descriptions, and how to manage projects.  Once Dr. Kerri and Jeff are able to build up the internal framework of the SCS, they can start to implement creative plans to help disseminate the science of Behavior Analysis as it applies to Education and the technology of Precision Teaching.  Further, they can implement these skills to Precision Teaching Learning Center!  We at Precision TLC are excited about the future and all of the possibilities and hope you are too!

Three Essential Elements to Fluent Writing

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

Writing seems to be difficult for most students whether the student is in second grade or in college.  This struggle could be a result of ineffective teaching, or because writing is simply a complex skill.  In this article, I will address three classes of behavior that are needed to be a fluent writer: expressive language, sequencing, and grammar.

Expressive language is the ability to freely talk about things and events.  A common “symptom” of a weakness in expressive language is when a student sits and stares at the paper with pencil in hand.  It is likely that he/she struggles with forming the language needed for the writing sample.  Examples of strong expressive language include using descriptive words, making comparisons, and talking abstractly about things and events. This skill is essential for brainstorming.  One common strategy to use when brainstorming is to freely write as many ideas about the topic as possible. Another indispensable feature in expressive language is the use of anaphoras, or using different words to refer to one thing.  Interesting writing does not consist of repeating the same word over and over again. 

After the student freely writes ideas about the topic, he/she needs to order those thoughts so they make sense.  Sequencing involves organizing events or thoughts in temporal and logical order.  It is important to have order in writing so that the reader can easily follow and understand what is being described.  Readers like to anticipate what is coming next in a passage and have that expectation validated.  You will know if your student needs assistance with sequencing when thoughts and events are randomly presented with no logical or temporal order, resulting in a confusing writing sample.

Finally, after the student’s thoughts are on the paper in logical and temporal order, the student needs to write with grammatical accuracy.  Sometimes students will struggle with writing if they are distracted by thinking about comma placement, what version of its/it’s to use, what perspective or tense to use, etc.  However, students cannot simply practice grammatical exercises apart from “real world” examples to improve their grammar.  Students must learn how to correct an error-filled story and edit their own work when learning new grammatical concepts.

If your student is an excellent reader and speller, but still struggles with writing, it is likely he/she struggles in expressive language, sequencing events, and/or grammar.  At Precision Teaching Learning Center in the Tampa Bay area, our in-house, curricular assessment will allow us to identify the specific weakness.  We then custom build curriculum to fit your student’s needs in those areas in need of help.   Visit our website (www.precisiontlc.com) or call us (813-778-5201) to learn more about our services and how we can assist your child in writing or other academic areas using the precision of science!

Precision TLC Teaches Tampa in the Summer!

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

The summer is just about halfway over! Has your learner remembered all they were taught last year? Have they learned new skills this summer? Are they prepared for the coming school year? Precision Teaching Learning Center can help your child be prepared, catch up, or even get ahead while still enjoying the wonderful Tampa summer. If you think your learner could benefit from gaining up to TWO years academic growth in the area of greatest defecit, please contact Precision TLC at (813) 778-5201. Remember, you can also stop by at 26837 Tanic Drive #103 Wesley Chapel, FL 33544, just outside of Tampa, FL. 

Effective Education?

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

This last month, parents of Precision Teaching Learning Center's students  shared some great news.  One of our students with an Autism diagnosis was transitioned back into his regular classroom!  Further, two of our students who were supposed to be held back made the honor roll!  However, this is not the typical report for students who only receive help from the public school system.  According to the Data Accountability Center*, only 2% of children qualifying for special services transition back to “regular education.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all students (particularly those with a disability) receive free, appropriate public education to prepare them for future education, employment and independent living.  Students who require special services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, and those who have been diagnosed with various learning disorders or developmental disorders qualify to receive services through the public school system.  There are 368,808 children (3-21 years old) in the state of Florida receiving services under IDEA as of 2010*.  Florida is the fourth ranked state with respect to total number of children qualifying for services under IDEA. 

With over 350,000 students requiring services beyond those of the typical classroom, schools employ social workers, reading specialists, speech therapists, and other service providers to work with the students.  Some students are in a self-contained classroom with other students of similar diagnoses while other students are pulled from a regular classroom to receive services for as little as 30 minutes a week. 

The education system even developed a systematic approach for teachers and other service providers to assist IDEA students called Response to Intervention (RtI).  Data from assessments regarding intensity and complexity of the student’s needs guide teachers and service providers on how to further help the student. 

The IDEA and RtI systems are great with their intention to help the overwhelmingly large number of students who require extra educational services beyond those that are provided in the typical classroom.   Florida even takes it a step further by bestowing families with money (amounts equivalent to what the system spends on extra services for a student) via the McKay Scholarship to seek further help at a private school if they are unhappy with a public school.  Again, all of these things are steps in the right direction.

However, the trouble lies in the outcome data.  Of the 130,873 students ages 14-21 under IDEA, only 2,631 qualified as a “typical” student and re-entered “regular” education*.  You may think these are the severly challenged students.  Yet only approximately 28,000 students fit into that category.   Students with speech problems, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, etc. are the ones who account for the majority of the 128,242 students* who cannot be separated from their label. 

Therefore, 98% of students do not advance from special education or still require special services.  Florida only rehabilitates 2% of the students who need help.  Is 2% even a statistically significant amount to say, “This treatment works”?  Not in our book.  If you really want to help your student, enroll him/her at Precision TLC to go beyond the most intensive treatment that the public school system can offer your child.  Even at their best, your student is more likely not to improve based on those services.  Invest in your child’s future and tip the scales towards success by calling us today.

*Statistics can be found at the Data Accountability Center: http://www.ideadata.org/arc_toc12.asp#partbEX