Executive Functioning – From Principal Tom’s Newsletter

Prefrontal_cortex-executive-functioning-parkeracademyWhile many of you know that we do a great deal of work to help our students develop social pragmatic skills, emphasizing social communication and emotion regulation, you may not know that our efforts also include helping our students to develop the executive functioning skills that compliment them.

Executive Functioning Skills (EFS) encompass a number of interrelated sub-skills that are necessary for purposeful, goal-directed activity. These include planning, being organized, mentally playing with various ideas, giving a considered rather than an impulsive response, and staying focused.

The interplay between Social Pragmatic Skills and Executive Functioning Skills (EFS) can be seen in areas such as stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety can inhibit the ability of students to develop and maintain EFS. There are concurrent associations between underdeveloped pragmatic social skills and executive deficits.

Although you cannot always draw a straight line between them, improving pragmatic social skills helps to relieve stress and anxiety. Reducing stress and anxiety improves learning EFS. Improving EFS, in turn, improves student performance. They also include strategies to de-escalate anxiety, promote health and physical activity, yoga, and our specialized curriculum.

Principal’s Corner – February 2020


Second semester is off to a good start. The students have taken on their new classes and are working hard. Now that the daylight hours are getting longer, the students appear to be in good spirits.
We recently had a presentation on vaping and smoking by our school nurse. The growing number of students who vape is disheartening. After e-cigarettes were deemed as a tobacco product, they were prohibited from all schools. They are no longer allowed where smoking is prohibited. We urge you to talk with your child about the health effects of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
We recommend that you prohibit e-cigarette use around your child. You may not know this, but you can also choose to send your chil

d to a college or university that is tobacco-free, including e-cigarettes. For questions regarding e-cigarettes and vaping, contact the NH Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program at TPCP@dhhs.nh.gov.

As you know, the February vacation period starts on the 24th of February. The school will be closed for the week and our teachers are looking forward to some time off to rest and spend time with their families.
This year’s Empty Bowls fundraiser is scheduled for Tuesday, March 24th from 5:30 PM-7:00 PM. We hope you can make it to this great fundraiser. All monies raised are donated to a local food pantry. We have hosted an “Empty Bowls” fundraiser for many years and have raised over $1000 each year for the past twelve years.
School safety and security is a high priority here at Parker Academy. We work hard to make sure that this is a safe place for our students and staff. If you have any concerns about your child’s safety or security, please do not hesitate to call us. The phone number here is 410-6240.
The NH Department of Education has been reviewing Parker Academy’s policies and procedures this year. Although we will get a written report in late March, their preliminary comments were very complimentary, with high praise for our teachers and our curriculum.

Parker Academy Student Accepted to RIT

Jessie Bair, graduating in 2020, was offered early acceptance into RIT, School of Illustration. 

We are so excited for Jessie Bair, a member of our 2020 Senior class, who has just been accepted through early decision to her first choice of colleges- Rochester Institute of Technology where she will be majoring in Illustration. Jessie’s goal is to become a writer and illustrator of children and young adult books.

Jessie has always enjoyed and excelled in the arts, taking every art class that Parker Academy has to offer. She enjoys Drawing and Painting the most, but has had a lot of fun working in Ceramics, too. Her favorite medium is watercolor and colored pencils which she uses to create her favorite subject- mythical creatures. One such work, titled “The Hippocampus” was displayed in Crust and Crumb in downtown Concord. 

Jessie first came to Parker Academy part time for tutoring, but it was soon after that she enrolled full time as a Freshman. Prior to Parker Academy, she had been home schooled by her parents. Jessie lives in Epsom with her parents and two older brothers. 

Congratulations, Jessie. We are so proud of you, and we look forward to hearing all about your upcoming adventures. 

Jesse RIT Bound

Jesse Artwork

Parker Academy’s Applied Arts Program

At Parker Academy we believe the work we are doing with our students is really important. We are hoping to have an ongoing dialogue with the people and programs that make Parker Academy what it is.

Today we are getting to know more about the Parker Academy Applied Arts Program. Like most of the arts, this program is expressive and intuitive; and we are spending time with applied arts teacher, Sheldon Cassady, to find out a little more about why this program is so important in socializing, student success, and harboring creativity throughout a lifetime.

Your shop class is part of the visual arts program at Parker Academy, what makes your class differ from the fine arts?

My class differs from the fine arts because it’s applied. Which means it deals with the application of design and aesthetics [to objects of function] and their everyday use. The creating we deal with is more industrial design oriented, furniture or machinery, welding- that kind of thing. However, my background is in fine arts, so it does have an artistic flare, but it tends to be more applied.

“Whether the students realize it or not, it is mostly socialization skills and team building.”

We don’t see this class existing in a lot of middle and high schools currently. What do you think the benefit of having a class like this is?

A lot of why we can offer this class is because of the nature of the school. Whether the students realize it or not, it is mostly socialization skills and team building. We are creating a space to have an introduction to the shop, and expose them to things that they might not get to be doing outside of this class. It is really exciting to see when it all comes together. We have had our students go on to college or trade schools to continue with things like welding or mechanics that they have gotten a taste of and enjoyed. Our small class sizes [usually three to five students] help with tailoring projects and maintaining safety. There are very few accidents due to everyone following the rules and a lot of individual attention.

Being an artist yourself, how do you think that translates into how you teach your students?

As an artist I understand that it is the process that is important to me. Rather than just give them a blue print or rubric, I make them design their own projects. The students create the prototypes that they use here. I stress the part of the brain that has to develop the thing, as much as the thing itself. A lot of kids at this age do not have the ability to make something exquisite. I tell them I would rather have them make ten mediocre pieces building up to the good one, than beat one thing to death. Due to skill level, I choose to stress the creative side of what they are doing, and how it is going to work, rather than the end result.

“It gives them a level of achievement that is important in growing. I think we undervalue these successes because we do it all the time as adults.”

What are some of the core lessons and important concepts that you incorporate into your classroom?

The important concepts vary so much because of the individual nature of what we do. Right now, I have one class where we are focusing on team building. Students are learning how to work together as a cohesive unit to create something. It has less to do with product or personal development with those kids right now. We are lucky enough to able to be flexible with these kids. They are here, in applied arts, for other reasons. From emotional issues, isolation, home schooled and the need to practice social skills- to autism etc. It’s hard to pin point. As a teacher you accept the child’s individual profile and move into a place that they can thrive. You find out who the student is and how to help them through the process of making things. It’s amazing to see the satisfaction when they finish a project. You have to realize that some of these kids have never really had a success like this before. Maybe they are not as good at reading or math, but they just made a beautiful wooden bowl. It gives them a level of achievement that is important in growing. I think we undervalue these successes because we do it all the time as adults. But for some of these students to be able to make something, have it function, and be beautiful- it really makes them want to go on and proceed with making more things. We have some emotional kids that really need some positivity in what they are doing. It is a physical thing they can hold and see the success in.

Found object sculpture

“I know how it sounds, but the best part of this, the thing that I am most happy about achieving is- every now and then you really get success with a child. You see them go on to something great.”

What are some materials you utilize in this class?

As far as materials go, whatever we want to work with. My background is in wood but I have also been a mechanic. We work with a number of materials but it really varies on the student’s interest. Sculptures are made from found objects to car parts. I try to be flexible and work in the direction of the students for the most part. Sometimes we are limited by the tools we may or may not have, such as glass work. These road blocks allow us to problem solve and find different avenues to create our projects.

What do you think is the most interesting thing that your class has accomplished?

We have had so many amazing accomplishments over the years. One of my favorites was a 14-foot sailboat, another time we made ten little skiffs, rowboats. Students built them all in one year, and different classes worked on them in teams. At the end of the year they got to row around in the pond together after graduation. It was really neat to see. In reality we make so many different things, bike part chairs, mousetrap race cars. Some of the little things are really great too. There have been small metal boxes that students have soldered together with different kinds of metal that came out really nice, artsy, and exceptional. I know how it sounds, but the best part of this, the thing that I am most happy about achieving is- every now and then you really get success with a child. You see them go on to something great. They really respond to whatever it is you were doing at the time. Sometimes it surprises you how much of an effect you have had on them. The product here is really inconsequential, and to focus on that I think would be a mistake. We are makers, learning through the process of our own ideas, to produce something that is uniquely our own.

“We are makers, learning through the process of our own ideas, to produce something that is uniquely our own.”

Parker Academy’s Music Program

At Parker Academy we believe the work we are doing with these students is really important.  We are hoping to have an ongoing dialogue with the people and programs that make Parker Academy what it is.

Today we are getting to know more about the Parker Academy Music Program. It seems to be an ever evolving, highly therapeutic program; and we are chatting with the music teacher, Zack Jones, to find out a little more about why this program is so important and inspirational for these kids.

Zack, how did music affect you when you were this age and how did you get into music?

“Music was basically the thing that always intrigued me. It always made sense in a way but was also a mystery. It always came back to my mom. She was a pianist when I was growing up, and she use to play piano all the time when I was little. I never took lessons, but I would take time playing and exploring sounds on the piano. I still come back to it, what it did for me emotionally and the fact that music can easily strike up emotions. I was really into music in terms of movies, in fact, growing up I wanted to me a film composer. As a kid I would come up with music to films in my head. My first piece was when I was about six. It was a four-part song, with distinct parts on the piano that told the story of how our dog died. The story of him playing, getting out, getting lost, and then getting hit by a car. You could clearly hear the distinct parts in the story, which is relatable at a young age.  It was my way of processing that my dog died; those hard emotions. Music continued for me from that point.”

“This program exists in a new area of music, an area that blurs the lines between music education and music therapy.”


The music program existed before you came, what was it about this specific program that intrigued you and made you want to work at Parker Academy?

“When I first moved to New Hampshire I had a chance encounter with my predecessor, who refined the program. I stopped by his yard sale because I saw instruments. We chatted about mutual interests and how I also taught music. Two months later he had an idea that he might be leaving this position, and what I thought about it. I have a music education degree, but I had this idea that I did not want to work in the standard public music system. I am always a fan of doing things differently.  I love to be more creative and more open ended. Before I even moved to New Hampshire I was already looking into programs dealing with music therapy. I was already interested in this bridge between music therapy and music education because for me, music was both. It was a thing I studied and it became academic. I got really into the music education part and the social emotional part was undeniable. That’s what I wanted to tap into more. Explore more. When I moved to New Hampshire it was right in front of me. This program exists in a new area of music, an area that blurs the lines between music education and music therapy. My predecessor and I are different people but when he described who the students were, and what the position was, it was the obvious next step. We are always trying to move this program forward.”

While you are talking about moving forward, we all know that the arts and music programs are continually getting cut from schools while Parker Academy’s is constantly growing. Why do you think that is?

“It is amazing if you think about the numbers. The fact that a school of 50 kids or less has a full-time music and art teacher is unheard of. There are schools in the same place with four times as many kids that do not have a full-time music teacher. So I guess that’s a credit to David Parker for really valuing that. I know it’s built into the philosophy of the Parker Academy, which is another reason why this is the perfect place for me to be able to commit to full time teaching. It allows for more kids to have access to music this way. They will come in contact with it at one point or another here.  I will basically have all of the students for at least one semester. It all comes down to providing more access to music for the students.”

How do you incorporate these important concepts into your classroom?

“I think generally speaking, most of us know intuitively the value of learning and participating in music. There have been quite a few scientific studies about what happens in the brain when we play, learn, and practice music. It is pretty well documented but I think in our setting, with our students, it’s even more important that they have access to music. The music classroom and program here provides them with social emotional learning opportunities as well as music education opportunities. Playing music together in a group is not something a lot of these students have had the opportunity to do in the past. If you can see how they respond to being in this environment and having exposure to being with others, creating with others, even something as simple as being musically in sync with others; it is powerful.”

“We specifically created this program to be as student centered as possible.”


You say that it is easy to see the confidence and self-esteem of these students change when you are in the classroom. What does this look like?

“There are definitely a lot of students that have not had music in the past. They will start in this class and be unsure, shy, not have much confidence in the sounds that they are making. Fast forward to a month in, a semester, or after a performance; the change is obvious. You can see it in their body language, [and this carries to outside of the music room as well] their self-esteem, after they have an open mic night under their belt. I know this to be true, attendance in the classroom has increased after a performance. All the other metrics that we measure for student performance and progress will have an uptick right after a performance night. [We have never done a wide study on this but I definitely have seen this to be true in a number of students here].”

“What’s great about this program is that, as much as possible, it is student centered.  We go to great lengths to make it relevant to the students in the classroom. Our small class size allows each class to be unique, working on different songs and programming. That is an important part of it. Most of the music we are playing the students bring forward. There is some music that I present as well because I have knowledge of music that I think they might like. I would say it is 20% from me and 80% from students choosing the songs. I am asking them what they are listening to that morning coming in off the bus. Then maybe later that same day we are learning that song in the classroom. You know there’s the personalization, exploring the music they like, how do they produce those sounds themselves, and what’s actually going in that song. Really digging deeper into these pieces of music that lends itself into realizing there is a lot more going on. It is more than just teaching the physical sounds to produce it. Over time their sense of music and their perception changes. Their taste may even change when they learn about/realize what’s going on in the music. What came before that, or what influenced the band they listen to. There is a strong sense of identity that often comes from the music that you listen to especially as an adolescent. That’s an important time. You will always hold those songs dear to you. There is a recent study that came out saying that the music that you listen to during this time period effects the brain differently because of the chemicals and hormones that are firing in the brain between 12-15 years old, that makes music just ‘the best’. There is something about the music you listen to in that time period that will instantly bring you back to that same place. There are some deep seeds planted in adolescence in terms of the music you listen to, and we explore those seeds directly in this music program.”

Why do you think students want to be involved with a program like this one at Parker Academy?

“I would say one of the biggest benefits is that we have the ability here to ‘start where the child is at.  Because of our small class sizes we can go a little farther than that. We are able to talk about things more in depth. What are you listening to? What is that? Let’s figure that out. What are you interested in? What is it about music that gets you excited? What is it that sparks your interest and we can go right to it. We are different in some really interesting and important ways. We give time to explore. We specifically created this program to be as student centered as possible. We look at where their interests are.  What is important to them should be reflected in everything we do. This is not imposing or regimenting everything to a small degree of learning, but creating a place to solidify a project-based student centered environment.”

Looking around your classroom it is clear to see you create some serious projects with the kids. What is the importance of technology in your classroom?

“The technology in an alternative music program like this is extremely important. Knowing the direction I wanted to move in, it seemed obvious to me to start embracing technology.  We are small enough that we can have individual iPads for each students.  During the last couple years I have gone to a few clinics about using iPads in the music room. You now have the power to create, compose, and produce music on a professional level with technology like an iPad or iPhone, which most students already have. There is a Grammy award winning producer who creates all of his music on an iPhone. This is the world we live in currently and this is something we should know. It is exciting the capabilities we now have working with an iPad. We have done some individual and group projects using the technology we have currently. There are a variety of different apps that we incorporate to make music creation really accessible to everyone in the classroom.  Some connect visual arts with music, for those who are more visual. There are all kinds of visual adaptations you can make as well. We are really just scratching the surface in the last couple years. On our computers we have the ability to make professional level recordings.  We can record live sound with the microphones and plug directly into our keyboards and drums.  Students go through the entire process of recording, sound engineering, and production. There’s the possibility to unitize this technology and these things are becoming more common in our everyday life. We have even composed music for movies the students have made in other classes. There are a lot of cross curriculum work to be done with technology as well.”

[“Follow the Rhythm”  written, recorded, and produced by the Parker Academy Ensemble]   

 You allow time for the kids to play out of the classroom. What are some of the activities you do?

“This is kind of in line with other music programs. Performance is an important aspect of music. It’s not our centerpiece, we are not always preparing for a performance. Sometimes we are just exploring and learning other things. Performance is a real important part in bringing what we have been working on up to a level where we feel comfortable playing for the public. It brings things into perspective for us, a reality check to a lot of things we do it. We could easily get lost in exploring, but if we don’t solidify things and start to actually put it together, then we are missing a whole aspect of being a musician. I truly believe that we can all be musicians, just because we are human. That is kind of my philosophy, and I think that effects what we are doing here as well. As musicians, playing music for others is part of what we can do to present our gift to the world.  We do that in a couple of different ways. Our most consistent being our ‘Open Mic’ performances., everyone participates in them.  We take great joy and pride in playing for our community, and take every opportunity to perform at activities downtown such as the “Rock N’ Race.”

Busking in downtown Concord

“I truly believe that we can all be musicians, just because we are human.”

“Students that want to go that next step, and we have a good handful of those, allow us to look for other forms of performance opportunities. This year we looked forward to busking on the streets in downtown Concord. There is an immediacy playing for real people, random people, on the street. It is a completely unique experience that allows you to be in the moment and improvise at times. Performing in general is a practice in getting out of your comfort zone. This is a big deal and is something that we plan on and prepare for. It is part of being in this program, getting kids out of their comfort zone and into their performance. We have performed at the library, and taken a caroling group for the holidays around town into stops on Main Street. Any extra musical opportunities that we can put together we certainly try to make happen. We also have an ensemble. This has been something we have done since the start of the music program at Parker. There are always a handful of kids who want to go the extra step outside of classroom [even in this small of a school]. This would be another reason that a student may take interest in coming here. For the kids that are more dedicated in music, and want to put in extra time, then this is the group for you.”

Is there anything else you would like to add about the music program?

“The importance of the student centered nature of the program. The fact that we are learning songs that primarily come from the students and the class size allows us to do that. The fact that we are trying to incorporate social-emotional growth as well as academic growth is somewhat unique.   This is a therapeutic day school, where the entire staff work together to help our students to move forward, to develop into vibrant, healthy human beings.That’s a big factor and an important aspect of our school. We know the arts are inherently therapeutic so providing access to the arts on a daily basis is a big factor.”

“This is a therapeutic day school, where the entire staff work together to help our students to move forward, to develop into vibrant, healthy human beings.”

Counteract the Effects of Toxic Stress

by Martha Burns, Ph.D

STRESS!  Just the word alone causes an anxiety reaction for many of us even though stress is a part of everyone’s daily life. In fact, days on end without any stress at all would be pretty boring even though we probably all long for that sometimes.

Neuroscientists have explained how some stress is actually good for us; it helps us stay alert and adapt to changes in the world around us.

Educators and athletic coaches have found that the stress of competition through grading or scoring helps students and athletes maintain motivation. But stress can also be very harmful.  I suspect all of us have had personal experiences where we made a critical mistake or forgot something very important because we were stressed out about a problem in our daily life. So what’s the difference? Is there a dividing line between good stress and bad stress? Is it the type of stress or quantity that matters?

Although a simplistic explanation is that stress may be like many other inevitable aspects of human life – in moderation stress is good for us, in excess it is harmful. Brain scientists clarify the distinction from a biological and psychological perspective. The scientists differentiate between “tolerable stress” and “toxic stress” and emphasize how the effects on the body are quite different.

Tolerable vs Toxic Stress 

To understand these two types of stress it’s helpful to begin with an explanation of the brain’s stress mechanism. For these purposes we can separate the brain into two major divisions. We are all familiar with the advanced thinking part of the brain – the cerebrum. When we conjure an image of the human brain, it is the cerebrum we picture. But beneath that part of our brain is a more ‘body function’ oriented brain region that handles emotions, as well as basic body states like hunger and sleep. In that region there is the limbic system where emotions like fear, anger and joy are processed. Nearby is an area called the hypothalamus and a gland called the adrenal gland which work together to release hormones in response to emotions or other body states.

What physically happens with stress?

One hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress is called cortisol. That hormone is used by the body to increase our blood sugar level to enhance metabolism – helping us turn food into energy. But at the same time it suppresses our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Many of us are familiar with the practical effects of increased cortisol if we feel ravenously hungry, for example, after a stressful day.

Another hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress is adrenaline, also known as epinephrine.   Adrenaline causes an increase in breathing rate as well as blood circulation while it prepares our muscles for exertion. Like cortisol, adrenaline increases metabolism, especially for carbohydrates – thereby giving us the energy we need to avoid or tackle whatever it is that causes our stress.

Tolerable stressors give us the energy and strength through the increased metabolism and heightened bodily response, to get a job done effectively and efficiently.  For school-aged children, the stress of an upcoming test may provide a student with the motivation and energy to read and memorize new material. For an athlete, the stress of competition should help provide the edge needed to win. In all of these examples, the stress remains tolerable because there is an end in sight – the work project is completed.   The excess hormones then decrease, and there is a period of rest or relaxation that follows.

The difference with toxic stress is that there is no relief – the stress is ongoing and unremitting. The fight and flight hormone levels remain elevated for extended periods of time, not only negatively affecting the human body, but also changing the brain.   It’s important to remember in this regard that the brain is an experience dependent organ – it gets better at what it does most. Practice the piano a lot and you will push your brain to increase musical skills.

But, herein lies the problem with chronic toxic stress – the brain is focused on and therefore over-exercising stress responses (fight or flight).  When that happens, the brain is preparing us to act quickly and decisively, no time for thinking about the problem. So in essence, the thinking brain is blocked, so it is not exercising skills needed to do well in school.

As the brain gets better and better at responding quickly to stressful situations, the individual who has experienced toxic stress reacts more impulsively to potential stressors, like a bump on the shoulder, which may not bother someone else at all.  And, he or she remains agitated for a much longer period of time. For a student in school that can translate to highly impulsive behavior and increased aggression.  It may appear to be a lack of self-control and poor listening skills.  The student is essentially on high alert at all times which might work well in a boxing rink or basketball court but can be very problematic in a classroom.

What are some of the causes of toxic stress among school age children and is there a solution? Researchers know that chronic neglect or abuse in the home can cause toxic stress. But there are also other more subtle causes of toxic stress like ongoing marital strife between parents, chronic maternal depression, and very toxic we now know, poverty.  So what are the solutions to reducing stress for our children? Fortunately, they are more available than one might think.

  1. Supportive role models and environments: Psychologists have found that access to at least one supportive adult in a child’s environment can markedly reduce the effects of toxic stress. That can be a coach, a relative, a religious figure or, in many cases, a teacher. In fact, if you talk to successful adults who had very difficult or stressful childhoods, or who overcame extreme poverty, they will often single out a teacher or two who served as role models, inspirations and supporters.

But not only can a supportive teacher provide a relief from toxic stress – the school itself can provide a safe haven as long as the child feels protected and respected.  For that to occur, the student needs to be successful at learning, which is not easy for many students from unstable or low socioeconomic status environments.  However, several available methodologies are at hand to turn struggling learners into successful ones.

  1. Adopt a growth mindset: We have learned that when students believe that intelligence is not fixed but rather ‘smarts’ can develop through the process of learning, called a “growth mindset”, achievement is significantly accelerated.
  2. Relax: There is emerging evidence that brief periods of relaxation, meditation or yoga can relieve stress and have a positive effect on learning.
  3.  Build Cognitive and Literacy Skills: Finally, there are neuroscience-designed interventions that research indicates can specifically target and build those regions of the brain known to be important for learning, resulting in dramatic improvements in academic success.

Help Your Student See The World of Physics Around Them

Physics may be one of the most challenging sciences, but it’s also with us all the time in our everyday lives. Help your child stop and notice.

Thinking about science in real-life terms can help your child master the subject. Sound difficult? Relax. It’s only a matter of translating the language of physics into the language of your child.

parker academy learning physics

  • Rest. This is the state of the book, gum wrapper or item of clothing your child leaves on the counter or the floor! An object is at rest when it is simply lying there and not moving at all.
  • Inertia. This is your child after dropping the item. She knows she should pick up the item and put it away, but doesn’t feel like it. Inertia is a fancy term for resisting a change from one type of motion to another.
  • Force. This is you. Force makes change happen. When you come along and tell your child she won’t be going out this weekend unless everything is picked up, you exert a force on your child. This force overcomes her inertia. She puts herself in motion and picks up what she left lying around.
  • Mass. This is one way to tell how hard your child will have to work at cleaning up. Smaller objects (the gum wrapper) that are lighter and easier to move have less mass. Bigger objects (a stack of books) that are heavier and more difficult to move have more mass.