Common Core and Increase in Student Stress

Written by Anthony Pantaleno, PhD, a school psychologist

ccss-stressesStudents Are Already Faced with Significant Challenges in Society Today
In addition to the typical stressors faced by many American students such as family fragmentation, peer socialization and “fitting in,” and the lure of substances and sexual experimentation that has always been seen as trademarks of the adolescent subculture, children and adolescents in the U.S. are attempting to manage more significant mental health challenges that not so long ago were the purview of an adult world. The effects of these additional stresses are staggering:

  • 160,000 Kids Stay Home from School Each Day Out of Fear of Bullying
    ABC News reported that 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bulling. In recent years, a series of bullying-related suicides in the US and across the globe have drawn attention to the connection between bullying and suicide. What many people may not realize is that there is also a link between being a bully and committing suicide.
  • 10-20% of Young People Experience Cyber-bullying on a Regular Basis
    About half of young people have experienced some form of cyber bullying, and more than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber threats online. And they aren’t telling anyone. Fewer than 1 in 5 of cyber bullying incidents are reported to law enforcement, and well over half of young people don’t tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs.
  • CDC Reports 4,400 Suicides Among Young People Each Year
    Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among young people. And for every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. That means that 440,000 students have made a conscious decision not to live and have acted on that decision.

A December 2013 poll conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health also reported that 40% of parents believe that their high school kids are stressed over school.

Rigorous Standards of Common Core Present New Challenges
In some states, such as my home state of New York, there has been enormous conflict over the past 2 years, or as some would state—a full scale war—between the Commissioner of Education and the NYS Education Department versus parents and educators regarding the most appropriate process for rolling out the Common Core. Instead of the Common Core being slowly introduced and integrated into the curriculum at lower grades, New York students have found that the Common Core has been imposed into their lives all at once without the prerequisite skills needed to be successful in this higher-order curriculum. The result has been the highest level of stress in students, educators, and parents that I have witnessed in the school system since entering the field in 1978.

For those in the audience unfamiliar with the Common Core, this is a national educational initiative which seeks to make certain that all high school graduates across the country have exposure to the same instructional methods which will make them college ready for the marketplace in the 21st Century. In order to achieve this goal as soon as possible, some states like my home state of New York, have ramped up the rollout of the common core framework across all grade levels K-12 at a pace which has met with tremendous opposition. The “core” of the Common Core requires that all students’ basic skill sets in reading, writing, and math are transformed from the more “black and white” fact-based instructional system where information is memorized and presented back to the teacher to a system which demands high-level analytical thinking, abstract reasoning, and the ability to deconstruct and synthesize information beyond the basics. It changes the rules of the game for tens of thousands of students mid-stream.

This all sounds fantastic in theory, and no one really disputes the need for such a shift. The resistance comes from several fronts—parents of children with disabilities whose learning style does not follow the normal curve, parents who do not see college admission as the only end-goal of a high school education, and educators who know that new initiatives take time to nurture and grow successfully. What the Common Core initiative lacks is an appreciation for the developmental rate at which children, adolescents, and all of us, in fact, learn new tasks.

If I want to teach a child how to ride a bike, I must wait for a certain level of physical and muscle growth to take place. I am very likely to begin your lessons with training wheels on that bike to give you the feel and joy of riding on your own. As you develop a sense of confidence, the day will come when I will raise those training wheels a bit off the ground. You’re likely to complain a bit as you notice that the bike wobbles a bit and you have to work a little harder to keep it in balance. Over time, as your muscles and senses begin to work together, you’re ready for your first solo ride—sans training wheels. With further practice, you soon have a lifelong skill that will be available at a moment’s notice, even after years of not riding for one reason or another.

I suppose a shortcut to teaching this lifelong skill could be achieved by telling you to “just ride the bike” without the prerequisite steps, but then again I could also teach you to swim by throwing you in thirty feet of water and move your arms about quickly. This is not how most people want to learn to swim. Reason and decades of research in teaching new skills tells us that if we press a reluctant learner beyond his/her level of readiness, anxiety and avoidance may be the result. It’s for the same reason that a new driver doesn’t take their first driving lesson on the local parkway or freeway.

In New York it feels that the Common Core has thrown our students into the deep water without much preparation resulting in increased student stress levels. Let me illustrate with 3 scenarios:

  1. Last summer, I was interviewing a 5th grade boy in my private practice office. His mother had brought him in due to a heightened level of anxiety that he was beginning to express to her. I asked him to share three of his biggest worries with me. He spoke about the threat of nuclear war from North Korea, and about his father’s need to do a lot of air travel due to the nature of his job. He finally leaned back and then added, “And on top of these things, I have to take the Common Core ELA and Math tests this year”!
  2. At the start of the current school year, some of the departments were asked to present to the faculty a look at Regents exam changes—both pre and post Common Core. As a math-disabled adult myself, I cringed at a presentation by our math department. In the pre-Common Core example of a question from the Algebra Regents, a fairly standard algebraic equation was presented which asked the student to solve for “X”. Most of the teachers agreed that this was do-able. In the Common Core version of the same algebra Regents exam, 3 equations were presented to the student, fully solved. The student was then asked to respond in multiple choice format to which of a set of algebraic principles could be applied to solve all three equations. A colleague turned to me and said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore”!
  3. The final scenario involves the instruction of students with disabilities, many of whom are in special education programs precisely because they lack the more abstract reasoning skills required to be successful in mainstream classes. Parents are now asking what will happen if their children cannot pass the new Common Core Regents with a grade of 65? Students are being asked to read and write at levels that they have not seen since they started kindergarten, and when they are unable to perform, are acting out at increasing rates.

Record numbers of students “opted out” of the recently administered Common Core ELA exams in New York. Parents complained that their children were coming home from school in tears that the line in the sand had to be drawn.

As if this were not enough of a tsunami for the school systems to bear, test results from Common Core exams have been linked to teacher evaluation, commonly called the Annual Principals Performance Rating (APPR). Teachers whose students do not meet the passing standard of the common Core exams are given a rating of “developing” and are given 3 years to improve their test results or face the risk of being asked to leave the profession.

So what does all of this intense system change do to children and teachers? It triggers the same fight-or-flight stress response system that the body uses when faced with a more real and present danger, like a barking dog breaking away from its owner’s leash and charging at someone—our muscles tighten, our heart rate increases, out breathing becomes increasingly shallow—and some of us will experience a sense of dread and foreboding as well. These are the same symptoms identified by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM 5, as a specific phobia. It’s symptoms of test anxiety for certain, but with a more pronounced edge given that the individuals experiencing these symptoms are children…and in large numbers.

So what are teachers, parents, and other educators to do to help restore sanity to the schools?

Innovative Approaches to Managing Student Stress
Programs which create a sense of welcoming and belonging have made huge changes in schools across the United States and around the world. Here are examples of the most replicated approaches to positively impacting school-wide mental health.

  • Natural Helpers is a national, peer-to-peer program that educates students on how to quietly help their friends. They lend an ear when needed, or refer peers with serious problems—such as depression and substance abuse—to other resources. Anyone can do a Google search for schools using this program and learn how to develop a program in your own school.
  • Operation Respect seeks to create a respectful, safe and compassionate climate of learning where academic, social and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule and violence.
  • Yoga and Mindful Meditation approaches are becoming increasingly popular in the classroom, and with great success. These introduce the relaxation-response, a well-known physiological antidote to symptoms of physical and mental stress. A resource guide with references to yoga and mindfulness programs was recently developed at a conference at Hofstra University and will be made available to all participants in my upcoming free webinar.

How does a student develop the skills to master the educational challenge of the Common Core?
Digital technology hijacks students’ attention in a way that distracts them from the academic pursuit of excellence. With students so tuned in to digital technology, why not use this same natural penchant for technology in a manner that can enable students to meet these rigorous standards with a sense of mastery and confidence? I would maintain that there is an essential digital toolkit that can be an enormous asset to ALL students in their quest to meet the 21st century challenge of Common Core face-to-face.

My own introduction to the Kurzweil 3000-firefly software first came when trying to assist my 2nd grade child when she was first diagnosed with dyslexia. Kate is now a thriving college freshman attending one of the finest SUNY colleges. Our school district was one of the first on Long Island to introduce Kurzweil technology into its special education program. Katie showed an immediate attraction to the text to speech technology that is a hallmark of this product. She immediately took to using the writing tools and the study skills toolbars built into the system. By the time she was in 10th grade, Katie was ready to be declassified. I have recommended this product to so many families, especially in this day of being asked to meet the even more challenging demands of the Common Core.

Join the conversation with Dr Anthony Pantaleno, PhD, a school psychologist in this webinar:
Student Stress, the Common Core, and Powerful Strategies for Change
April 30th at 4:30 PM ET

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Spring is in the Air—and Summer is Close Behind

free-ebook_kurzweil3000fireflySummer is a time for play and relaxation—and there’s no better way to relax than curled up with a good book. How can you ensure your students will get their much needed reading time during the summer months? Make it easy and fun.

Make it Easy to Read with Free eBooks Online

There are thousands upon thousands of free eBooks available to anyone, and accessible to everyone with Kurzweil 3000-firefly. Finding these books can be cumbersome, unless you know where to look. Here is a list of our favorites that will help your students avoid the summer slide.

  1. International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL)
    The ICDL offers free eBooks for all ages and from a variety of cultures, which is especially important for English Language Learners. Check out the Featured Book List from the ICDL to get started.
  2. ManyBooks
    Choose from a list of 10 most recent downloads, or base your decision on recent book reviews. These are just 2 of the many ways free eBooks from ManyBooks makes it easy to find what you are looking for (even when you aren’t sure what that is).
  3. Feedbooks
    A very simple navigation for any genre you can think of makes for easy browsing free eBooks on the Feedbooks public domain pages. The only caveat is deciding where to start—The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction or Science Fiction.
  4. Project Gutenberg
    As one of the original free eBook aggregators, Project Gutenberg has a very large list to choose from. If you’re not in the mood for something a little different, check out their latest project The Self-Publishing Press.
  5. CK-12
    The multitude of educational videos on CK-12 is a great solution for kids who want a break from reading. Send them on a virtual Earth Science field trip on a rainy day.
    With books for ages ranging from toddler to young adult, this kid-friendly site makes finding a new book both fun and simple. Kids can either read the book online, or download a PDF to have it read to them in Kurzweil 3000-firefly.

K3000ff-easy-buttonTip: Show students how to open eBooks with the click of a button in firefly—PDF and EPUB files included.

Make it Fun by Turning Reading into Play

Here are a few recommendations on how to motivate students to read—and read a lot—during the summer break. Implement one or a few in your classroom to appeal to various social and learning styles.

    • Summer Book Club: Help students organize a book club before the end of the school year. They can hold their discussions in person or online with WhatsApp or Google Hangout.
    • Summertime Reading Events: Work with your PTO or local library to host summer reading events. Bring Kurzweil 3000-firefly up on the screen to have everyone follow along.
    • Create a Digital Scavenger Hunt or WebQuest: Have students look for clues within books or find and read books based on the hunt. Learn how by reading this blog.
    • Give Reading a Purpose: Have students collect donations for every page they read—or leverage usage reporting in firefly to track time spent reading. Have your class vote on which charity to give the proceeds to.

Do you have firefly? Listen to a free on-demand webinar “Opening up the World through EPUB Books and Kurzweil 3000-firefly” to watch how to upload files into firefly, or contact us for a free demo.

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Tales from CSUN

When I was asked to go to San Diego in March to manage our exhibit at CSUN, the Annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference organized by the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge, I enthusiastically said, “yes!” Not only was I going to travel to the beautiful city of San Diego but I was also going to see some of the technology that makes it possible for people with disabilities to lead independent lives.

Here are some snippets describing what I saw at CSUN this year.

A young woman came to our booth to talk about Kurzweil 1000, our text-to-speech software for people who are blind or who have vision impairments. She lost her sight shortly after receiving her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and is now studying for a Master’s using Kurzweil 1000. She said she wouldn’t be able to continue in her studies without a tool like Kurzweil 1000. That was a nice story to hear.

Quite a few people visited us to learn more about firefly and the relationship between Kurzweil 3000 and firefly. I drew pictures to explain that firefly and Kurzweil 3000 are an ecosystem united by the Kurzweil Universal Library in the cloud. Documents are uploaded to the Universal Library using Kurzweil 3000. These documents can be read using either Kurzweil 3000 or the web-based version of firefly or the iPad app version of firefly. The following picture (which is better than anything I can draw!) shows this relationship. This is a simplified version of our ecosystem because more can be done with Kurzweil 3000-firefly than just reading documents. But this is a start in understanding the relationships.


A quick walk around the exhibit hall reinforced my delight at the knowledge that technology has given a voice to people who learn, interact, and communicate differently. It was hard not to notice the devices for magnifying text, or the high definition cameras to bring content into reading devices, or communication apps to help people who can’t speak, and more. Without technology, so many people would be unable to prove they can be contributing members of society. Hooray to technology!

cami-stevie-wonder-kurzweil3000fireflyTo end, I have to mention the Stevie Wonder sighting! His appearance on the second day of the exhibit caused quite a stir as people snapped photos with their phones. Stevie graciously posed with several people, including our own Cami Griffith. As a huge fan of Stevie, Cami’s day, month, and year was made.

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Don’t Let English Language Learners Fall Behind

ELL Kurzweil3000firefly

Learning a New Language Takes Time

It takes 5-10 years to gain proficiency in a new language. Why? ELL students must learn both the social language and the more difficult academic language. Ongoing linguistic challenges coupled with the lack of a culturally relevant academic background increase the level of difficulty. Unfortunately, time does not stop for ELL students. They will need to continue their academic progression at the same rate as their native-English speaking peers, an ambitious goal considering the new rigor introduced with Common Core Standards.

ELL Students Can Read & Learn at Grade Level with Literacy Software

Specific features in Kurzweil 3000-firefly support language and academic learning for ELL students—regardless of ability level or prior education experience. Visually tracking words with text-to-speech helps ELL students to improve their fluency, while high-quality voices reinforce the flow and cadence of the English language. Additionally, built-in tools allow ELL students to work on difficult, decontextualized content-area texts, enabling them to read text at or just beyond their language proficiency level. How does it work?

On the Fly Translation for 72 Languages & Reference Tools Help ELL Students Read at Grade Level

Let’s face it, students today are used to having tools at the tip of their fingers. Investing the time in opening a dictionary or visiting an online translation site can be frustrating and take a long time, a task that is exemplified when considering complex text. The ability to translate words, sentences and entire paragraphs, right within the text and immediately simplifies the task and makes the whole process of reading more inviting.

ELL Students Learn at Grade Level with Study and Writing Supports

Within Kurzweil 3000-firefly, ELL students can gather, examine, and relate information from a variety of sources—including text books, high-level articles, or online—translating from English to their native language and then back again. The software then guides them through the thinking and writing process, from outline to brainstorm, and final written work. Here are a list of tools that facilitate the study and writing process for ELL students:

  • Highlight and extract main ideas and supporting evidence into column notes and outlines
  • Visually organize thoughts with graphic organizers
  • Develop an understanding of text structure with writing templates
  • Listen with text-to-speech to proofread content, syntax, and word selection
  • Employ proper usage of homophones and content-specific vocabulary with Word Prediction

Aid Vocabulary Acquisition with a Suite of Tools in One Software Solution

Decoding a word is just the first step, developing an understanding or word meaning—either for a targeted word or phrase—is crucial for meeting Common Core Standards. Kurzweil 3000-firefly provides a multisensory approach to learning by offering both visual and auditory supports. As a result, students are actively engaged in vocabulary enrichment and are able to develop a deeper comprehension of learning materials.

  • Built in bilingual and picture dictionaries, in addition to thesaurus tools, assist with vocabulary acquisition
  • Instant access to reference tools, including Wikipedia, work to deepen comprehension
  • Customizable Word Lists and Vocabulary Study Guides help to familiarize students with new words and phrases

Give ELL Students the Tools to Succeed.

Enhance, develop, and accelerate learning for ELL students with award-winning tools from Kurzweil 3000-firefly. You will enable them to simultaneously develop their language skills, further their academic learning, and develop technological know-how within one intuitive and user friendly environment. Learn more about key features for ELL students  or how Kurzweil 3000-firefly can be used for test-taking.

Get your free trial today to see how Kurzweil 3000-firefly promotes independent learning and enables ELL students meet the rigors of the Common Core. Try it on any and all supported platforms—including PC, Mac, iPad App, and the firefly the web application.

1I.M. Chisholm & C. Beckett, “Teacher Preparation for Equitable Access Through the Integration of TESOL Standards, Multiple Intelligences, and Technology” Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 12(2), 2003
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You Can Read files in firefly from Your Computer with the Click of a Button

ebooks-kurzweil3000firefly“Wow!” is the word used to describe the newest feature in firefly. You can now open a file saved to your computer directly into firefly with the click of a button. No need to go to Kurzweil 3000 to convert a file to store to your library, and no scanning. Just start reading. Tell us what you think of this new feature.


How does it work?

Login to, click on the “Your Computer” button, then select the file you’d like to read from your computer. It’s that simple.

What file types work with this new button?

You can open many of main file types using the new button in firefly. Files created in Microsoft Word, saved as either a Rich Text (RTF) or Plain Text (TXT), and files already converted to Kurzweil—or KES files. You can even open a PDF and EPUB directly into firefly from your computer. If your file ends with those listed below, it can be opened and read in firefly with just one click.

  • .pdf
  • .doc
  • .epub
  • .rtf
  • .txt
  • .kes

Try the new button with these free sources for eBooks!

Now that you can open files with the click of a button, here are a few sources for eBooks to expand your library—without spending a penny.

  1. ManyBooks
    ManyBooks provides many free eBooks available in many languages, and in many file formats including PDF, EPUB, and Plain Text—a total of 19 file formats in all.
  2. Feedbooks
    Discover thousands of public domain books, both fiction and non-fiction, with this e-book retailer. Digital formats include PDF and Kindle. Did you know you can read Kindle files with Kurzweil 3000-firefly’s Image Reader?
  3. Project Gutenberg
    Search through over 42,000 free eBooks with Project Gutenberg’s re-creation of classic literature library from paper books into digital books.
  4. CK-12
    CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit that creates and aggregates high quality curated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) content. Choose from thousands of free, standards-aligned STEM teaching resources including text, audio, and video files. Download files as PDFs, or use the Read the Web tool in Kurzweil 3000-firefly.
  5. AccessText
    Help college students with disabilities succeed by getting their textbooks in a digital,  format. Basic subscriptions are free.
  6. Bookshare
    Digital books and periodicals for individuals and organization that serve individuals with documented visual impairments, learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Offers over 200,000 titles for qualified students.

Register now for a free webinar Wednesday, February 26th to learn how to open files directly into firefly, in addition to other tricks for simplifying your day.

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Giving Access to Read for Informational Text

Are your students struggling with informational text?

Common Core Informational TextWe recently held a webinar to demonstrate how to read for informational text (non-fiction), one of the anchor standards in the Common Core State Standards.

Reading for informational text requires students to be able to read, comprehend what they read, demonstrate their comprehension, and overcome learning and language barriers. This can be a challenge for students who struggle. Kurzweil 3000-firefly can help.

How does Kurzweil 3000-firefly provide access to informational text?

  • Reading to understand complex text
  • The ability to grasp unfamiliar words and phrases
  • The interaction with text to improve comprehension and retention
  • The extraction of information to demonstrate comprehension

Which tools within Kurzweil 3000-firefly can be used to provide access to informational text?

  • Text to speech in support of close reading, especially for students with print-based disabilities
  • Read the web to support text complexity
  • Reference tools to understand complex text, and improve academic vocabulary and word meaning
  • Translation to give English language learners the ability to understand what they’re reading in their native language
  • Highlighters and note-taking functionality to interact with text and to demonstrate comprehension

Each of these tools (and more) were demonstrated during our webinar. Listen to the webinar now. Or visit our web site to learn more about how Kurzweil 3000-firefly gives access to the Common Core.

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I Have Been Using Kurzweil Since the 5th Grade


Using text-to-speech and assistive technologies, such as Kurzweil 3000-firefly has been a “game-changer” for me. As a student with dyslexia it is the difference between success and failure, self-confidence and frustration. This year, I will be graduating from high school and I can say, without hesitation, that without assistive technology I wouldn’t be able to take the classes I want because I’d never be able to keep up with the reading or writing. With it I am able to take challenging honors and AP classes.

Why is Assistive Technology Important?

Assistive technology means being able to focus on my strengths and abilities rather than having to worry about my disability. Without using technology, I struggle to express my thoughts in writing. I have to continually rewrite and rephrase what I want to say until I can find words I know how to spell. By contrast, with assistive technology, I can focus on what I want to say. I no longer have to omit particular words or leave out whole sentences because I can’t spell the words I want to use. I just use spell check, and speech-to-text technology to make sure I’ve chosen the right word.

I Have Become a Better Student with Assistive Technology

Using text-to-speech and audio technologies, such as Kurzweil 3000-firefly, I have complete access to just about anything I want to read, whether it is for school or pleasure, and can actually understand what I am reading. Kurzweil 3000-firefly and other technologies decipher the words for me so I can focus on the content. Before I started using text-to-speech I would miss out on interesting text all the time. Instead of reading chapters in my books or interesting stories in the morning paper, I would look at the pictures and guess at words I didn’t know. This would result in misreading and missing out on lots of interesting information. In school I would struggle through reading assignments and not really understand what I had just read. It was frustrating because I knew that if someone else read it to me, or I had access to assistive technology, I could understand it.
With technology being very common in most classrooms, I never feel self-conscious about pulling out my laptop or iPad in class. The great thing about the iPad is that there are so many assistive apps and accessibility features that I’m able to have equal access all the time, not just when I’m at my computer.

Assistive Technology Gives Me More Free Time

Instead of wasting time stumbling through words and rewording sentences, I read and write much more quickly. Then, I can use the time I save to do other things like writing my assistive technology blog, playing basketball, or going to the movies.

I’m sure Kurzweil 3000-firefly and other assistive technologies will remain an important tool for me in college and beyond.


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