Ways to build responsibility and important life skills in kids (That aren’t homework)

Scouting offers many benefits for growing hearts and minds, but do we have time?

I’m looking at the side of a box of Girl Scout Cookies. (Samoas, if you’re curious. Yum!) As much as I love the cookies, I love buying them from Girl Scouts even more. The side of the cookie box says that the goals of the cookie program include “Goal setting” and “Decision making” . When I was a kid, that meant going door-to-door in my neighborhood, my Nana’s neighborhood, and usually at least one more. It meant dragging all those cookies door-to-door in a wagon, right around Thanksgiving, making deliveries and collecting cash. Although it’s not a strategy I would advocate for an eight-year-old today, it taught me things that sending the order sheet to my parents’ offices never could.

Do kids today have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility?

This has come up a few times lately. A teacher at my son’s daycare complimented me for waiting and insisting that my son (who is two) put away the toys he was playing with instead of tossing them over his shoulder when he saw me walk in. I see that as an important opportunity to teach him about respect for his classroom and teachers, and an extra lesson in the ongoing course Cleaning Up After Yourself 101, which I will be teaching every semester until he moves out, I am sure.

I was also recently talking to colleague who is an occupational therapist. We both work with students with various types of special needs, and we both see the hazards of letting kids grow up without functional skills. But we both admit that our kids (mine a toddler, hers school-age) don’t have enough opportunities to practice them. We both work full-time, and are too busy to fully engage our kids in learning to take care of themselves. When I have a day off, I try to let my son help in the kitchen (he loves to make rice in the rice cooker!) or with other chores (he knows you say “corner to corner…and fold it” when you fold a washcloth, but the rest eludes him so far). But on  weekday mornings, it is all we can do to get two adults and a child fed, dressed, and into the car. And in the evening, I am completely willing to put on a TV show and hope he sits quietly while I make dinner, load the dishwasher, and do whatever else I can manage before bed.

At my house, my son has (and will have, as long as I work full time) fewer chores and responsibilities than I had at his age, if only because my husband and I don’t have enough time to teach and supervise as much as my mom did when I was young. So while I was doing laundry at 10, cooking my own mac and cheese at 9, and peddling those cookies at 8, I don’t foresee my child having the same opportunities.

Are chores and responsibilities important?

The Girl Scouts believe that their cookie sales program teaches “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics,” among other things. The Center for Parenting Education cites benefits like improved sense of responsibility, more self-esteem, and increased ability to tolerate frustration and wait for what they want.
Parents also worry that their children need to learn to:

  • manage time better
  • communicate or speak up for themselves
  • understand the value of money
  • work independently
  • take care of themselves (this means different things at different ages)

So how do you balance the “must-do’s” of your life with the “should-do’s” of building responsibility?

I keep telling myself that the time I’m investing in teaching my son that dirty clothes go in the hamper and dirty plates go in the dishwasher in the toddler years is going to pay off when I no longer see him finish every meal or change every outfit. *fingers crossed*

But what else can we, as parents, do to promote independence in our kids?

  1. Sports – belonging to a team gives your child a whole bunch of people to be accountable to who are not relatives or teachers. Let’s Play names improved confidence, consistent exercise, respect and relationship-building as benefits of playing on a team. For students who struggle academically, it’s important to have something to be good at. For kids who aren’t athletically inclined, it still is important to find them a physical outlet they will enjoy. Maybe swimming, dance, martial arts, or cross-country running will give your child an athletic routine at their pace, even if they aren’t the best, fastest, or most coordinated.
  2. Chores – Simple, but tried and true.
    Age-appropriate chores are tricky to find, but rewarding!

    Giving your kids a routine of chores to be responsible for can help you out, make them feel like team members in the family, and teach them core skills that they will use all their lives. And hopefully, they’ll be more likely to avoid dripping toothpaste on the counter if they are the ones that wipe it down each evening. It can be tricky to find the right, age-appropriate chores. But if you start with things your child is motivated to do, you’ll have won half the battle.

  3. Personal growth goals – What does your child want to get good at? Do they want to become better artists? Learn how to program computers? Write novels? Look for opportunities in your community or online, and then build time for it into your family’s schedule. My husband is (from my lowly perspective) a computer genius. He learned it all fooling around on the family’s computer after school as a teenager. Who knows what your child can accomplish if you give them the basic tools and teach them to make time for what they love!
  4. Learning music has many benefits for a child’s development

    Musical instruments – This might fall under the category of “things your child loves” or it might just be another thing on the schedule. But either way, musical practice teaches your child time management (I quickly learned that practicing 45 minutes the day before my trumpet lesson was not the same as practicing 15 minutes a day all week long). Laura Lewis Brown, writing for PBS.org, cites several long term benefits of music lessons, including improved IQ, increased language skills, and  improved skills in visualizing information (like those needed to solve math problems).

So why didn’t homework make my list?

The wrong homework can be a waste of time!

Eh, I’m not a huge fan of homework. As a teacher, I know that’s borderline sacrilegious. And as a tutor, it seems like a total business-killer, right?

But hear me out.

The average teacher assigns the average homework assignment to the average student, right? Because otherwise, assigning homework would be a planning and management nightmare!

The research shows that homework is not effective for elementary students. In fact, for students with good home support, good homework can be beneficial. For kids with less support around homework, or for students who didn’t understand the lesson to begin with, it’s not so useful. I would still argue that for students struggling to master basic skills (those with reading disabilities) or those with attention difficulties (who have been expending huge amounts of energy to get through the day), homework is a much lower priority than spending an afternoon and evening playing, resting, and doing activities where kids are happy and successful.

Here’s my wish

I wish teachers didn’t have to assign homework. I wish families used that time for a few activities that are meaningful for the family. That’s going to vary a ton between households. For some families, it would be cooking dinner together, for others playing in the yard or attending sports practice, and for others it would be working in the family business. All of these options give kids valuable perspectives and life skills. And I hope everyone would have a routine of reading before bed, or maybe in the morning before school!

For most elementary kids, that type of quality family time, combined with how well-rested and prepared they felt at school the next day, would be what they need to succeed in school. I think kids would do better because family stress levels would be lower and relationships in the house wouldn’t have to revolve around math facts 5 nights a week.

Other kids may need some extra help somewhere along the line. Tutoring, provided in short, frequent, focused lessons, helps kids strengthen weak skills and catch up to their peers so they can make the most of each school day. Although it takes a chunk out of a child’s available time in the afternoon or evening, carefully planned tutoring can make a huge difference in your child’s school success, long-term!

Why “Go look it up” doesn’t help poor readers understand words (And what to do instead)

The dictionary can be daunting and unproductive for struggling readers

Some people would argue that kids need to learn to use dictionaries and so if they don’t understand a word in what they’re reading they should be responsible for looking it up.

While I agree that dictionaries are one important tool for language learning, they are often not the first line of defense for students who struggle with vocabulary, or for students who are reading difficult text. There are several reasons.

  1. Dictionary definitions are sometimes difficult to understand. –  A dictionary that is at too high a level for the student is going to overwhelm them with language they do not understand, and it’s unlikely to give them a definition that clears up their confusion
  2. Looking up a word takes a long time. – When a student does not understand a word in what they’re reading, the goal is to get them back to reading as quickly as possible. Getting a dictionary, finding the word, and making sense of the definition take up valuable reading or study time.
  3. Dictionaries do not help the child figure out what the word means in this text they’re reading. – A child without enough background information about a word will have trouble choosing the appropriate definition for the word. When they are reading difficult text, the wrong definition for a word can be enough to completely disrupt their comprehension.

So what can we do instead?

Pick the right books to help your child stay engaged and learn new words, without being frustrated and confused
  1. Choose books at the students instructional level. –   pick books with some difficult or unfamiliar words, but not too many of them.
  2. Help children understand the multiple meaning of new vocabulary words. –  Look up important words and make a point of connecting them to other words your child knows.
  3. Help your child look up a word. – Give them a child-friendly definition they will understand and remember. Help them reread the troubling sentence by substituting your definition for the difficult word.  
  4. Help your child generate examples and non-examples of the word to remember it longer. – If the word is important and likely to come up in lots of reading, it helps to have a rich understanding of it. You can ask questions like, “Would you feel reluctant to go outside on a cold morning?” or “Would going to brush your teeth be considered a mission? Why?” The yes or no answer isn’t as important as the explanation. Bring in the topics you and your child feel passionate about, like sports or music, to make these connections memorable.

Here’s what could go wrong with using the dictionary

Using the dictionary without support can leave kids confused and ready to abandon a hard book!

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Here’s the dictionary. Look it up.”

Child: “It’s a shoe?” *rereads sentence* “Oh.” *Puts down Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and gives up on reading for the day.*

Here’s what a vocab conversation could look like:

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Where did you read it?”

Child: “Here. ‘As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by another loafer, who had rushed up with the same intention.’”

Parent: “This dictionary says, ‘a person who idles time away.’ Basically, it’s someone who hangs around wasting time.”

Child: “Oh!”

Parent: “So, when is a time you might be a loafer?”

Child: “Saturday afternoons when I watch TV.”

Parent: “Definitely!”

Child: *Goes off to finish reading book.*
It takes a little longer, but discussing and developing vocabulary is an investment in your child’s language skills that will last the rest of his life. The dictionary has its place, for sure, but it can be discouraging and distracting for struggling readers to tackle on their own.

The Transition to Middle School

From what I remember about middle school, it could have been the sequel to Lord of the Flies. Except I vaguely remember some adults being in the building.

Basically, I spent 90% of my time thinking about where to sit in the cafeteria, and whether it meant something that Kenny closed his locker and walked away as soon as I got to mine, and whether I had enough hair spray in my bangs. I guess I spent the other 10% thinking about academics, but frankly, that part is a little fuzzy.

Is it any wonder that these people, who were very recently children who definitely had monsters in their closets and needed timeouts, struggle to meet their teachers’ expectations in middle school?

So much changes in those last couple of pre-teen years. Physically, hormonally, cognitively, and emotionally, no one comes out of middle school the way they went in. For better or for worse.

Add to all this personal stuff the constant pressure on teachers to push academics down, down, down to younger students, and vulnerable middle schoolers are dealing with more pressure and stress than ever before.

So how do we protect our middle schoolers?

First of all: be there. According to this piece in the New York Times, even teens who seem to hate their parents feel better and have better outcomes when their parents are available regularly. The author, Lisa Damour, calls them “potted plant parents.” They are moms and dads who are just there, fading into the background. A study connected this parental availability with lower rates of behavioral and emotional problems.

Promote healthy habits like eating breakfast and lunch and getting enough sleep. As middle schoolers mature and get more freedom, they sometimes make short-sighted choices that affect them negatively. They may stay up too late, skip meals, or choose junk foods that affect how they feel and how they learn. Try for a family meal most nights of the week. Research shows that family dinners lead to positive outcomes for health and learning, but if you’re not home at dinner time, maybe you could sit down for breakfast?

Another important way to prepare your child for middle school is through teaching mindfulness strategies. This is one of the hardest practices to sell to adults and kids in our busy world, but I believe one of the most important. A growing body of research shows mindfulness training and practice is helpful for improving students’ attention, emotional regulation and compassion for others, while decreasing their stress and anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive that slowing down in this way is going to help your child make their way in the fast-paced middle school world, but these skills help teens learn to direct and sustain their attention, calm themselves when they feel anxious or upset, and understand their emotional reactions to challenges.

Preparing for academic success

Beyond health and social-emotional strategies, kids need some concrete strategies for dealing with the academic challenges of middle school.
Organize in advance – Follow the teachers’ school supply lists in the summer. If they don’t use a specific system for color coding, create one. Give each academic subject a color and buy a folder, notebooks, and maybe a binder in that color.

  1. Get a planner – Some schools provide them. If not, look for a school year planner that fits your student’s needs. Make sure it has enough room to write assignments.
  2. Create a homework space at home – It could be permanent – like a desk in a quiet space, or temporary – like a file bin or supply caddy you can put on the dining room table, then clear away at meal time.
  3. Create a weekly and daily routine – Often, teachers spend class time teaching students to fill out their planner or agenda book with class assignments. Support this and supplement it by sitting with your child over the weekend to look at the week ahead. Is it a busy week of practices and rehearsals? Is there a big project due next Monday? Every day after school, help your child to look at their planner and plan for tonight’s homework. Someday, they’ll do this on their own, but if you can find a moment to call them from work in the afternoon, or have them sit in the kitchen while you make dinner, you will build a habit that will pay off for years!
  4. Clean and organize periodically – Depending on the child, binders and folders tend to get cluttered and lose organization over time. Take an hour on a relaxed weekend to spread out everything, sort it, throw out the junk, and file away important completed work, like things they might need to study for an exam later this year. Some kids might need this once a month, while others need a weekly check in, and some can make it to the end of the academic term without making a mess.
  5. Give them responsibility – You are providing tools and support for homework, but at the end of the day, the grades are theirs. The transition to middle school can bring a steep learning curve for parents and kids. Be careful to set boundaries you are comfortable with so your child knows they have your support, but also develops skills and independence to succeed on her own.

When to get expert help

The transition to middle school can be challenging for even the best and most mature students. For many middle schoolers, good habits established during these years will make them available during the school day to learn what their teachers are teaching. The best case scenario is they will experience some challenges, and some moments of stress, but their strong foundational skills will serve them well.
For other students, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or weak basic skills might make it very difficult for them to succeed in class. If you and your child have tried some strategies, but school is still not going well, you might need to consult with other professionals. Talk to your pediatrician, a guidance counselor or special education teacher if you think an educational disability might be affecting your child’s progress. A tutor who is knowledgeable about middle school curriculum, study skills and executive function can also be a great help.

Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation today to see if tutoring is
a good option for your child.

 

 

 

photo credit: Enokson <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/47823583@N03/8465390293">Comfortable Computing</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>

Question: Who should use audio books?

Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!

There is a perception that listening to an audiobook is “cheating,” (an issue I would say Daniel Willingham puts to rest in this post). However, for students who are below-grade-level decoders, audio books are  way to honor their age-appropriate (or better) listening comprehension skills and keep them engaged in challenging texts.

I often present it to students this way: We work together to improve your decoding skills. (Through Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction and word analysis, as well as self-monitoring techniques and strategies such as rereading and using DISSECT to identify the meaning of unknown words). But sometimes, the most important thing is focusing on the story or meaning of a text. Accurate decoding takes energy and time. I want you to save your energy to think deeply about what you read, and at those times, I would like you to save your decoding energy to use on comprehension. So here:

  1. Listen to me read the text.
  2. Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
  3. Listen to this published audio book
  4. Use your Bookshare or Learning Ally subscription

Once we remove the obstacle of decoding the words in a text, which is a complex process that requires cognitive energy, students are free to recall, analyze, argue, and synthesize, along with all the other higher-order thinking skills we are thrilled to see them use. Exposure to text at their listening comprehension level exposes students to vocabulary, concepts, and grammatical structures that they might not be able to access through independent decoding. Is it “cheating” to call on those higher-order thinking skills just because they can’t decode the words? I think not!

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 1

In this post, you will learn how to set up and share a Google calendar for the purpose of keeping track of homework or assignments. See Part 2 of this post to see how to set up the homework entries and reminders.

Kids lose their agenda books. They leave them in their lockers, on buses, in desks. Sometimes they just vanish without a trace. And they take with them any clue the kid had about what to do for homework.

And then there are the kids that a paper planner just doesn’t work for. Their handwriting doesn’t fit in the boxes, or they keep putting things on the wrong page, and then they are gone forever! Or they write a project or due date down, and don’t check the agenda book when it’s time to do the work.

Turning Google Calendar into an assistive technology to help these kids is simple and helps them to build technology skills that will support them for life. I think this starts to be effective around sixth grade, if there are devices available regularly through the day, or if the child carries a smartphone.

First the child needs a Google account. Log in and choose Google Calendar from the menu of Google tools:

You will see a blank Google calendar, if you’ve never used it before.

 

 

 

 

 

I recommend creating a dedicated Google calendar, called “Beth’s Homework” or something similar to keep all the homework in one place. This is a good practice because hopefully the student will use the calendar to keep track of appointments, sports practices, and important dates down the road, and this keeps all that information from becoming smushed together and overwhelming.

Create a new calendar by clicking on the small triangle to the right of the words “My Calendar.”   There are 3 steps to setting up a new calendar.

  1. Name the calendar. Mine is “Beth’s Homework.”
  2. Share it with others. Type an email address, and choose from the dropdown whether others can view only or edit (including adding and deleting) events.
  3. Click “Create Calendar” at the bottom of the screen.

Tune in tomorrow to learn how to set up repeating events and color coding to make it look like a student agenda book. I’ll also show you how to edit the events to record the day’s assignments.

The Right Book at the Right Time

I must have been seven the Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful, hardcover edition of Little Women. It was one of her favorite books, and I’m pretty sure I was named after sweet, peacemaking, short-lived Beth March. I tried to read it, because I loved books and I loved my mom, but it was incredibly boring and confusing. It was basically unreadable. Eventually, my busy mother found enough evenings to read it to me. That time, I loved it! It was a book I read over and over in the second half of my childhood, and I sought out the other books Louisa May Alcott wrote about the March family and read them, too.

The lesson here is that a good read is about a match between author and reader. That’s why we each have different favorites. My husband’s favorite history books bore me to tears and not everyone loves to read Oliver Sachs’ books about the amazing human brain like I do. When kids, especially reluctant or struggling readers, read a book, it shapes not only their understanding of the content and the world, but of themselves as readers. Too many experiences with books that are hard, or boring, and they start to think of themselves as people who don’t like to read. And with the millions of books, and ever-growing body of other things to read in the world, that is a huge loss.

So how do you maintain your child’s interest in reading as they grow their skills so they can handle what their friends are reading? I’m glad you asked!

  • Read to them! There are huge benefits to developing readers who hear fluent reading. It builds vocabulary, increases fluency, and keeps them interested in books. Plus, it makes for great family time! It’s really hard to argue with your brother or sister while you are both listening to a story.
  • Get the audiobook! All the benefits of reading aloud, except they can do it independently. Many public libraries offer digital audiobooks, which can be downloaded to an iPod, tablet, computer, or smartphone. Audible.com is a paid service that offers an enormous selection of audiobooks.
  • Find an alternative! In my experience, struggling readers tend to pick a book or series that works for them and stick with it. I have spent months trying to help kids move on from Baby Mouse, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Captain Underpants. On the one hand, they are reading and that’s great. On the other hand, I want kids to discover and enjoy the many other books out there, and reading a series does less to expand vocabulary and skill than reading the same number of unique books. Try a website like http://www.yournextread.com/us/ or http://www.whatdowedoallday.com/books-like-diary-wimpy-kid/ for ideas. Better yet, ask your librarian.
  • Show, don’t just tell! Talk about your own reading. Share your excitement when you find an excellent title or author. And also talk about the times you just can’t get into a book. Kids need to know that everyone gives up on a book from time to time, when it’s not the right fit.

Making book recommendations is a responsibility I take seriously. Making a match between a kid and a book is a great accomplishment. But there is trial and error involved. It’s important that your child understand that finding a book hard or boring doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that she is a bad reader. It might just not be the right book at the right time.