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There is a difference between being intelligent and doing well in school. Generally, people speak as if the two are the same. In fact, there are some very smart people who do not do well in school and some who might not seem as “smart” but who do very well. We should not say, “She’s so smart. She gets all A’s in school,” because it is likely that she gets great grades because she works very hard at it rather than totally because of her intelligence. I have taught some extremely intelligent students who did not do well in school. I have taught some who others felt were not as smart, who did great!

It is hard to define intelligence. Some say it is the ability to acquire and use new knowledge. Others say it is the ability to solve problems. Skill is defined as the ability to do a particular thing. The ability to read is a skill. The ability to drive a car is a skill. Most of the time, an individual person will not acquire all skills at the same rate, and this is likely related to facets of their intelligence. An elite dancer may have an innate intelligence that makes him able to dance in such a beautiful way. Another might be a fantastic mathematician with intelligence for logical and mathematical thinking (see Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences).

If a student is not doing well in school, it is important to tell them it does not mean he isn’t smart. I have heard students call themselves “dumb” when they clearly have talents in many areas other than reading, writing, math, and science. Many CEOs and entrepreneurs did not do well in school! Once they got out of school and became successful, they were considered brilliant.

When your child tells you she is “dumb,” help her see that she has gifts that other children do not have. Help her understand that being smart and doing well in school are two very different things. There is more to life than going to school.

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by Elizabeth S. Leaver

At some point not too long ago, a piece along the lines of “see that silent mom who isn’t really participating while everyone else is talking about her child’s achievements” made the rounds on social media. It was a bit painful to read, because that mom is me.

It’s not because I’m not proud of my son. I am. It’s because he doesn’t, at 17, always meet the generic measures of success for his age. He’s an average, not particularly motivated student. He’s not an athlete. And despite society’s allegedly growing recognition of kids’ different strengths and abilities, I don’t always see much evidence of a true shift in perception of what makes a child smart, or brag-worthy, beyond academic success and being good at sports.

My own story couldn’t have been more different. I was a highly self-motivated student whose parents never had to remind me to do my homework or study. I had the grades to match, and my report cards were an enormous source of pride for my parents. I constantly overheard, and was told, that I was smart.

Yet as time has gone on and my son has grown, I’ve realized that that type of success didn’t actually make me “smarter” than he is. I was simply good at school, the way another person might be good at singing. And because I was good at it, it wasn’t hard for me to be “successful” at it, for the most part. As such, I’ve come to feel that tying that adjective—“smart”— to kids’ academic lives alone does them a true disservice. What if kids were all judged by another single measure, like, for example, their ability to paint? How many people would be considered “smart” if that was the gauge? (I certainly wouldn’t have.)

Where I sometimes struggled outside of the classroom, my son is socially capable in ways I wasn’t until I was much older. He’s quick-witted and well-spoken. He’s a fair and kind listener to his friends—I can see turning to him for insight and advice in the not-too-distant future. He is able to put voice to his feelings in a way many grown men cannot. He’s a talented, and largely self-taught, musician. And these are just a few of the things he is much smarter at than I was.

Academic achievement is certainly worthy, and I don’t wish I had come of age differently; I’m proud to think back on my hard work, and I think kids who work hard in school do deserve to feel proud. But all kids, all people, have strengths that should be celebrated. My son is every bit as smart as I was—whatever may have been on our report cards.

Elizabeth S. Leaver is a senior editor at School Family Media, SchoolFamily.com's parent company. She lives in the greater Boston area with her family.

Children who have executive functioning disorder, attention issues, autism spectrum disorder, or other learning disabilities are often resistant to change. I believe this is likely because when things are orderly and predictable, they are more likely to function well. When things occur randomly, they are required to make decisions quickly and figure out how to respond to a new situation. These children need routine; unfortunately, every classroom is different and teachers frequently change the daily routine in order to keep their classroom interesting and challenging. Children with learning issues need additional support to do well when things are different from what they expect.

Several things may help these kids.

  • Ask your child’s teacher to give him a heads-up that things are going to be different the next day. If he receives an assignment sheet, his teacher could include additional information that tells all students what will be happening in class the next day. If that is not possible, they could tell your son who needs routine to expect a change the next day. This gives him time to consider how to best respond and how to be ready for class.
  • Your child may benefit from sitting near the teacher or near a “buddy” who will assist her when she is confused. She can eventually learn to look to see what other students are doing as a cue for what she needs to do; but, until she can do that for herself, having a friend help her makes sense of the confusion.
  • If you know your child has ADHD or an executive functioning disorder before starting school, consider waiting a year before starting him in school. Children normally gain more control over their educational environment as they grow older. Giving these particular children an extra year to prepare may be a great idea. They may be less affected by changes to their routine if they are a year older.

Providing advanced warning or a buddy to help children who resist changes to their routine can be very helpful. Eventually, these changes may not be so difficult because these children tend to get better at handling them as they grow older. If your child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan, consider asking for help as part of their plan.

You can learn more about ADHD by reading Managing Middle School With ADHD.

For information on executive functioning read Executive Functioning: How It Affects a Student In School.

If your child is autistic, you might want to read Help Your Autistic Child Succeed in School.

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Each student has preferences for how he likes to learn, what kind of classroom makes him feel the most comfortable, and how his teacher likes to teach. Many times, students are in classrooms that do not match up with their learning preferences. For example, a very creative, free-spirited student may be in an extremely structured algebra classroom with student desks carefully lined up in rows. Or, a student who is structured and likes step-by-step instruction is taking history from a teacher who mostly holds Socratic seminars in class. Students who are mismatched this way often come to me to find out what to do. They say things like, “I don’t know what is going on in there! What am I supposed to be learning?” or “I can’t stay awake in that class. It is so boring!”

Students must be able to learn in settings that are different from what they prefer. It is important for them to learn how to learn in all kinds of classrooms. Here are some suggestions that may help.

  • Encourage your daughter to communicate with her teacher when she has concerns. I have met with many students who were sure they could not succeed in a class. I always encourage them to talk to their teacher about it and find out if they have suggestions for ways to study and prepare for class. For example, teachers who use Socratic seminars normally base them on research the students are doing or on reading in their text. To be successful, students must do the research and reading. Doing the homework matters more than it did before!
  • It is helpful to form study groups with students who do well in the class. See if your son can help a friend in algebra if his friend will help him in history.
  • Talk to your daughter about staying open-minded. Sometimes, it is a fear of the unknown that is the problem rather than a true mismatch in learning/teaching styles. She may not have been in classes where her teacher asks open-ended questions with more than one correct answer. It is uncomfortable for her to express her ideas in class and to be graded on whether she participates. Once she goes through it a few times, she may find that she enjoys it and does learn in that environment, after all.

There are all kinds of teachers and students. Students have to learn to do well in classes they might not like. To do so may require kids to talk to their teachers about their struggle, form some study groups where members of the group can help one another, and hang in there long enough to figure out whether or not their early fears are warranted. School is preparing students for their future. They will find they work with people who think differently than they do. Having these experiences and learning to be successful in a variety of settings will help them to be successful later on the job.


> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Learning Styles Quiz

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When reading an academic textbook, students often lose track of the meaning, because there is too much information to hold in working memory. If the words in the text are already known and understood, the meaning is clear. The problem occurs when they come to an unfamiliar word and must stop reading to consider its meaning. A typical scenario goes like this. The student stops reading to think about the new word. He looks it up in an online dictionary, considers what it means, holds it in memory, and returns to the reading. By the time he begins reading, however, the meaning of the word is lost. Each of us has a limited capacity to hold information in working memory, and within seconds the information is lost. This strategy for reading an academic text does not always work well. Here is a different approach to try.

Pretend that the science textbook your daughter is reading says, “The momentum of the train traveling at 30 miles per hour is much greater than the momentum of the car moving at the same speed.” To totally understand this, she needs to understand the concept of momentum. When she looks it up, she finds that momentum is the product of an object’s mass times its velocity. Here is where her strategy needs to vary. Instead of holding that information in memory while trying to apply it to the sentence, she should write it in the margin or jot it on a small sticky note stuck in the margin of the book. When she rereads the sentence, she should read, “The mass times velocity of the train…is much greater than the mass times velocity of the car…” This takes only a few seconds longer than the original strategy, but the result is that she understands the meaning now, since she already knows the meaning of mass and velocity. This does not require her to work with so much information in working memory. She can use her working memory to understand the concept which is what she needs to do.

In general, writing down information that is filling up the working memory capacity is a great strategy. If asked to identify the adjectives and adverbs in a passage, writing a short definition of each can help with the task. Many students have difficulty reading academic textbooks, and using this strategy can help with comprehension.

Will there ever be a day when there are no real books in schools? This question comes up periodically when we discuss how we should prepare students for the twenty-first century. I hope the answer is “Of course not!” I cannot imagine a world without books—the real kind printed on paper. I fear that I am wrong, though, because it is often a lot cheaper to provide digital books to students.

Please don’t misinterpret me. I am not a Luddite. I much prefer to read books on my digital reader. I can highlight, annotate, bookmark, and do the normal things I do with a paper book. But there are occasions when I want to have the real thing in my hand as I read and study.

I was once touring a student and his parents through the school. As we looked into classrooms, the student remarked how glad he was to see real textbooks being used in the classrooms. When I asked him why, he replied that he is bothered by the light on the screen, and that he has trouble keeping up in class when students are doing a group activity together in their book. He said it is much easier for him to keep up, write notes, annotate, or read from a real book instead of digital. He also said that he likes to follow along under the words he is reading with a pencil because it helps him focus his eyes in the right place. There are ways to do each of these things digitally, but there are some students who prefer to hold the book and pencil in their hand. They get feedback through their fingertips and muscles that helps them to learn better. Since that time, I have surveyed students regarding their learning preference and a significant number of them prefer the old-fashioned book as well as paper and pencil in school.

If your child has an Individualized Education Plan and she benefits from having a real book instead of digital one, you can request that she be provided the normal textbook in addition to her digital copy. She might decide to leave the paper copy at school in her locker and work from the digital one at home.

For a related blog, you might enjoy reading Does My Child Need a Laptop for School?

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Many students get anxious about school. Some worry about tests, which is understandable since often they make up the biggest part of the grade in a course. Others worry about doing homework, social situations, or some other aspect of school life.

I got to hear an expert this week speaking about anxiety in adolescents. Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, a professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently published a new book about regulating emotion in children and teens. I learned a very important point from his talk, and want to share it with you because it could make a big difference for students who worry about school.

Keep in mind that serious anxiety issues need to be evaluated by a professional. I am not advocating treating severe anxiety ourselves; however, I do think that if parents and teachers take appropriate actions when students are worrying about something, it might prevent normal levels of anxiety from developing into severe anxiety.

To understand the key point I learned from Dr. Southam-Gerow, I first need to explain the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is giving a person something they like for a behavior which in turn encourages that behavior. An example of positive reinforcement is when you see your child putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher and you allow him to have an extra half-hour of screen time before bed. This might make him more likely to do it again.

Negative reinforcement is taking away something they do not like which encourages the behavior just like positive reinforcement encourages behavior. The example Dr. Southam-Gerow used is the sound an alarm makes that goes off in the morning to get us out of bed. The sound is annoying us, and we hit the snooze button. We are no longer annoyed by the alarm, and we go back to sleep. Hitting the snooze button becomes negative reinforcement of our behavior—sleeping. We are encouraged to go back to sleep, and the more we do it, the more we sleep—even when it makes us late for work. Negative reinforcement removes something we do not like and encourages the behavior whether it is good or bad behavior.

Here’s the key point I learned this week. If we allow students to avoid what they are anxious about, then we are actually making their anxiety worse. If your son does not want to go to school and you allow him to stay home, the behavior will be reinforced. He will not want to go to school the next day, either. If your daughter worries about doing her math homework and you allow her to skip it, she will worry even more about the next math assignment. In our attempt to make our child’s life easier, we are actually making it worse.

A much better approach is to attempt to find out the source of our child’s concerns. Why does he not want to go to school? Why does she worry so much about math? We need to identify the reasons and figure out how to alleviate the concern rather than allow the child to avoid what worries her. This sounds so simple, but it can take time. If we cannot figure out the underlying cause, we should seek the help of a professional.

For more about school stress and anxiety, you might enjoy reading:

> Help Your Child Reduce Test Stress

> Deep Breathing To Help With Test Anxiety

I appreciate that Dr. Southam-Gerow read this blog prior to its posting.

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Students who have trouble paying attention in school need help in order to be successful. When the teacher explains what today’s lesson is about or tells his students what to do, children who cannot pay attention get left behind. They have a choice to wait for their teacher to notice they need help or to get into mischief. Depending on their age, they often choose mischief since that is a lot more fun. These kids often have a reputation of being the “class clown” and are disciplined by their teachers. If this sounds like your child, there are some things you can try that might help.

  • Provide structure and predictability. Parents can explain this to their son’s teacher. If he can enter the classroom knowing that the first thing he needs to do every day is to get his homework out and begin doing the warm-up activity, he can get settled in more quickly. It takes time to establish this habit, but it can help all students to be more productive, not just those with attention problems.
  • Use color-coded binders for each class. It is easier for your child to remember to turn in homework and to get out what she needs if everything is organized the same way for each class. This can become part of the structure and predictability she needs. Once again, this takes time to learn, and she will need a lot of help in the beginning keeping everything in its place. The time will be well-spent, however, because the end result is fewer missing assignments.
  • Teach her to move constantly in ways that do not distract others. She can squeeze a small balloon filled with sand or use another type of soft rubber ball.  She can learn how to wiggle her foot or tap her fingers on her knees without making noise. A child with attention issues can sit still and be quiet, but there will be no energy left for anything else. Wiggling can often relieve the stress of sitting still and allow her to pay better attention.


Problems with attention are common, but they do not have to mean school failure. Providing structure and predictability, helping to create a consistent organization system, and teaching how to wiggle can all help with attention at school.

These same suggestions can help at home, too. Begin by establishing daily routines at home which help family life run more smoothly. Provide plenty of time for exercise and play. Wiggle-time at home does not have to be quiet! Finally, make sure to tell your child that you love him just the way he is. These kids often feel that no one likes them, because the adults in their life fuss at them a lot.

Multiple choice and true/false tests are often evaluated using bubble-type, machine-scored forms. This is extremely helpful for teachers who have lots of papers to grade. But students who have visual-motor integration problems might have trouble using them and make errors putting answers in the correct spot on the bubble form. They might put the answer to number five on the form where number six is, or they might bubble in the letter “B” when they mean “D.” They might start bubbling in their answers in the wrong column on the form. When these errors happen, the student gets a very low grade that does not reflect how much they actually know. Here are some strategies to try if using these forms is a problem for your child.

  • Ask the teacher if it is OK for her to write answers on the test page before transferring them to the bubble sheet. This might help for two reasons. First, bubbling in the answers is a single step that does not require holding the question and answer in working memory. All your child has to remember is the question number and the answer she needs to bubble in. That reduces the likelihood of errors because of trying to hold too much information in memory at once. Second, if she does make an error transferring the answer, she can always check the answer against the actual test where she first answered. She can show her teacher that she really did know the answer but made a mistake putting it on the form.
  • If your child has a visual-motor integration problem, he might not be able to keep his eyes going in a straight line. He should use a blank index card or a ruler to keep his place on the bubble form. The index card can help make sure he does not skip down a line or number. If he lines up the card with the correct number on the form, he should make fewer errors.
  • Your child might need to cover up everything she is not currently working on with a clean sheet of notebook paper. This helps focus her eyes on what is important for the question.
  • If she makes a mistake on the form, she needs to be sure she erases completely before bubbling in the correct answer. If she does not, the machine may count the answer wrong even though she bubbled in the correct answer.

All of these strategies are easy to implement. The teacher needs to know why your child needs the strategy, though. It would be easy to think a child is planning to cheat if she comes in to take a test with a sheet of paper or index card. These strategies can be allowed as accommodations on a child’s IEP or 504 Plan, as well.

If these strategies do not help your child, she can also be exempted from using the machine-scored bubble forms. If that is the case, the teacher needs to know why it’s necessary. You can say something like, “My child makes lots of mistakes using a bubble sheet.  If you want to know how much she knows, it is better to allow her to write her answers right on the test. If she has to transfer to the bubble form, what you will find out is how well she can bubble in the answers—not what she has learned from you.”

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For many years now, students and teachers have discussed learning styles. We look at whether a person learns best through visual, auditory, or kinesthetic channels as described in "What Is Your Child’s Learning Style?" Others discuss Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences as a way to think about learning styles. And finally, we talk about right-brain, creative learners versus left-brain, logical thinkers. The truth is that learning styles are much more complicated than any one of these.

Consider how your child learns best. Does he do better if he goes outside to learn, or does he prefer a classroom environment? Is working in a group easier than working alone? Do open-ended questions that have many correct answers excite her, or does she prefer just one correct answer? Does she like a neat, organized place to work or to lie across the bed? Is a brightly lit room best, or does he like a dimly lit corner? Would a stand-up desk be better than a regular one? Would he learn better if he could talk with someone, or is working quietly by himself better? Does she prefer to be thoughtful and slowly consider what she’s learning, or can she make quick decisions? It is better to write things down, or should she make a recording?

These are only a few ways people differ in their learning preferences. It is important to spend time discussing this with your child. Adults tend to think everyone learns the same way they do. But we are all very different. Sometimes changing something simple can make a huge difference in how easy—or difficult—it is to learn something new.

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As a mentor for new teachers, I spend a lot of time discussing the three important skills young students need to learn before starting with Common Core phonics and early math. I call this my “Triangle Base.” These three core skills serve as a solid foundation for children to advance their Common Core studies.

The core skills in the Triangle Base are:

  • Rhyming
  • One-to-one correspondence
  • Patterns

Rhyming is so important because it promotes phonemic awareness, the ability to hear sounds in spoken language.

Knowing one-to-one correspondence is fundamental for both reading and math. In math, it means seeing the number 8, for example, and accurately pointing to and counting out eight objects. In reading, it means pointing to and saying what you’re seeing.

Recognizing and understanding both visual and auditory patterns are key indicators of reading and math fluency. An example of a visual pattern could be tile placement on a wall or floor. An auditory pattern could be the “e, i, e, i, o” in the song “Old MacDonald.”

The Triangle Base makes an excellent foundation because the skills also incorporate multiple intelligence styles. In other words, they encompass visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (hands-on) learners. So however your child learns best, he’ll be able to enhance and expand learning.

To practice these skills at home, parents should start by reading lots of nursery rhymes. Play “pattern” games by looking and listening for patterns inside and outside. Help your child practice counting objects in a row, pointing to the object as she says the number. When reading together, both you and your child should point to words you are saying. This subtle practice will help your child construct a solid Triangle Base, which is so important for success in Common Core classrooms.

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Most teachers teach their students how to use flash cards for studying facts or vocabulary. Flash cards are a great tool for many students, but there are some kids who need a different strategy. Students who are creative and who tend to think in pictures instead of words might benefit from trying strategies that rely more on visual cues. You might be able to tell whether your child falls into this category.

Ask your child what his favorite toy was when he was little. If he names a toy like Legos or Lincoln Logs, it is likely that he is a three-dimensional thinker who visualizes concepts rather than puts them into words. Another clue is to ask what happens inside his head when he reads. If she says that she see pictures of the scenes and can actually visualize herself walking through the set, then she is another candidate for a study strategy that uses more pictures than words.

Here are some ideas that might help. When beginning to study for a test, have your child draw pictures in his notes as a way to annotate them. He should think back to what he did when he was studying the concept and draw pictures of those activities. It is a good idea to use some color in the drawings, because color can help him remember the pictures later. Another idea is to make a folded study guide as described in my earlier blog Using Pictures To Aid Vocabulary Memorization=Better Results. A third strategy for creative, visual thinkers is to make a web or mind-map of the unit. For help with how to do that, read my blog Using Webbing To Study for a Test.

If your child says that studying doesn’t help, perhaps she needs a new way to study. Read this blog together and talk about how she thinks. Maybe a visual, creative study strategy will be the answer.

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Before very long, it will be time for the first test of the school year. Tests can be stressful, especially when students have not prepared well enough. Many students learn by studying flash cards. They are a great study method because students can study by looking at one side of the card, remembering what is on the other side, and then turning it over to see if you were right. They can be mixed up to practice the questions in different orders. And students can remove cards from the deck that they already know. There are several ways to study using this technique.

First is to create flash cards using index cards. An advantage of using actual cards is that students can add colorful drawings that might help them remember what is on the other side of the card. Or when they are taking the test, they can close their eyes and picture the cards in their brain. They also allow students to manipulate the cards which makes the activity kinesthetic (using muscles). This can help students to remember better. They are very inexpensive, as well. The down side is that they are easy to lose and require an envelope or pouch to keep up with them.

A second way is to use an app such as Flashcard Machine, which is available for iPhone, Android, and Kindle Fire. This app is very inexpensive, maybe even less than using index cards which are used up quickly and must be replaced. With Flashcard Machine, you or your child would purchase the app through the normal channels for his device and then go to the website to set up the account. Your child needs to log onto both the app on your device and on the website. He can create his own sets of study cards or use thousands of cards other people made. The cards are synchronized to his iPhone (or other device) where he studies simply by tapping the card to see the other side. An advantage of making flash cards this way is that your child has them with him everywhere he goes, and he can study them when he is just sitting waiting on something to happen. (No one will even know he is studying!) The downside is that there is no way to add a picture.

Another option to explore is Quizlet which works similarly to Flashcard Machine. Or have your child make a folding vocabulary chart like you find here.

Whatever method you and your child choose, remember that making the cards or chart is only step one of studying. Your child also has to spend time practicing over and over until he can answer every card correctly without looking at the answers.

Best wishes as you begin the new school year. I, for one, am ready for my students to come back. A school building without any kids in it is no fun at all.


> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Math Flash Cards

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There is a lot of talk about multitasking these days. Many claim they can do two things at once. However, if two tasks require conscious attention, we cannot do both of them at the same time and do both well. If we try to do two things at once, performance on both of them drops.

What does this mean in school or when doing homework? Students and parents need to understand:

  • When a task requires focused attention, students need to purposefully ignore anything else that distracts them. For example, if your son is working on his math homework, he should not be watching television, playing video games between problems, listening to loud music, answering his cell phone, or watching YouTube videos. In fact, it is a good idea to remove these distractions from his study area.
  • Students who bring a laptop or tablet to school must discipline themselves. When in class, your daughter should keep her computer open to the word processor to take notes and not flip back and forth between that and shopping online for new shoes.
  • When text messaging, pretty much all of one’s attention is absorbed. Text messaging while walking or jogging can be dangerous. Statistics are showing that texting while driving is causing a huge number of car accidents because it takes up too much of our attention. Similarly, in class, text messaging occupies attention and blocks learning.

None of this is new information, but it is important. Not very long ago, almost none of my students owned a smartphone. Today it is rare that they don’t have one within easy reach. I love that we can look up information almost instantly when someone asks a question. But, because the number of devices like smartphones is increasing, the potential for distraction in class is also increasing. This affects students’ ability to learn and produce quality work. This growing problem warrants examination.

I would love to have input from you. Do you talk to your children about responsible use of their electronic devices at home and in school? What should teachers do to help their students understand the effects of trying to multitask when learning something new? Do you believe we can multitask effectively or are we really allowing ourselves to be distracted when we should be working?

> Eliminate Distractions While Doing Homework

> Managing Technology Distractions on School Nights

After visiting a school that has made a concerted effort to change how they evaluate their students, I started thinking about the grades teachers give to students. If a student gets a C at the end of the quarter, what does that really mean? Generally, a C means average. So a C should be an acceptable grade. Most students should get a C. But parents expect their children to get A’s and B’s. Here is a different way to think about grades.

One path to the average C is that Adanna, a hard worker, starts out early in the quarter getting very low grades because she is struggling to learn the concepts. Then about the middle of the quarter, because of her hard work, she brings her grades up to C’s. By the end of the quarter she gets very high grades because she finally gets it. If you think about it, the high grades at the end of the quarter show that she actually learned what was expected of her. But because at the beginning of the quarter she did not understand the concepts, her final grade reflects the earlier struggle.

A second path to the average C is demonstrated by Brian, who generally doesn’t work very hard on schoolwork. He is really interested in sports and just wants to maintain a C so he can stay on the football team. Brian could be getting higher grades, but he produces average work for everything—homework, projects, and tests. At the end of the quarter, Brian gets the same grade as Adanna, even though Adanna really understands the concepts much better than Brian does.

This explains why grades don’t tell the whole story. Learning is what is important. How much did Adanna and Brian learn? Can they use their learning to solve new problems and learn new concepts? Are they ready for the next steps? The answers to these questions are so much more important than the grade they made on their report card.

As a parent, you might want to look often at the work your son or daughter is doing. Keep track of their daily journey. What you want to see is progress toward understanding. This is a better indicator of learning than the final grade on the report card. Learning is what is supposed to be happening in school. The final grade cannot tell you how much learning went on.


> What Do Grades Really Mean?

> Report Cards/Grades Articles Archive

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What was your favorite toy when you were a child? I love to ask my students this question. The students I teach have a specific language learning disability, and I can usually predict what they will answer to this question. Most often, the answer relates to building things. They will say their favorite was Legos, Lincoln Logs, or another similar toy.

Experts like Eide and Eide believe that these children prefer these toys because they have a strong ability to think in three dimensions. They visualize things differently when they read; they look at a blob of clay and see a beautiful sculpture. Later in life choose professions that rely on this gift. Unfortunately, according to the experts, this strength is related to weaknesses in other areas like reading and writing.

Many students who struggle in school have a gift in three-dimensional thinking. You can see these strengths outside of school by watching what they choose to do for fun. Are they creating origami creatures, building things out of toothpicks and marshmallows, or decorating cookies? Activities like these are three-dimensional in nature, and children can show how truly talented they are. School activities do not always make use of this strength, and therefore, school is not fun.

If your child chooses three-dimensional toys, encourage him to use this strength for school assignments when possible. When given a choice of assignments, encourage him to choose one that will allow him to build or create something. For example, if one project choice is to make a video, make it in claymation! If your assignment is to draw a poster, why not add some three-dimensional aspect to it? These assignments become more fun for him and he will spend more time working on them. This, in turn, helps to remember the concepts when needed later (like on the test).

For some ideas, check out the “Diorama Man” website.


> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Getting Help for Children With Dyslexia

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When children are very young, they can only think about concrete things—objects they can actually see or touch. The curriculum in early elementary school begins with things that are concrete. For example, science instruction starts with something like growing plants from seeds, and math uses blocks to teach children how to count. Later, children can think about abstract things that they cannot actually touch. They can count without the blocks, and they understand that 10 is larger than 4. In science classes, students begin to study things like the weather or atoms and molecules.

There are estimated ages when children are supposed to be able to move from concrete thinking into the abstract. But my experience is that the age when this occurs varies widely. I have taught students in the 9th grade who had a difficult time with anything abstract. I wondered whether they would ever be able to do it. With persistence and lots of practice, most of them were able to.

Learning occurs when connections form between neurons in the brain. I think the process of moving from concrete to abstract is simply a matter of waiting for enough of those connections to form. Some students are not ready developmentally to think in the abstract, but once they mature a little more, they can. My experience is that once a student “makes the leap” the first time, afterward they are able to think abstract thoughts fairly easily. It takes some students a long time to get there, but they eventually do!

Some people learn best through experiences and they remember things because they got to do it. They can tell a story about what was happening in class, which is how their memory works. One hypothesis is that these students may be the ones who develop abstract thinking later than their peers. They need to have more experiences before they have enough stored in their brain to begin making the necessary connections between neurons. (I first heard this when I read The Dyslexic Advantage by Eide and Eide.)

If your child is still primarily thinking in concrete ways, it’s important to keep trying to get them to think at higher levels. Ask them questions about abstract things and give them fun problems to solve. Play games that require strategic thinking. Talk through how you solve the problems and the strategies to use when playing the games. These experiences will help those neurons grow and those connections form in their brain. After that, abstract thinking will be easier for them.

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Young children take more time to process information than older kids do. Parents and teachers have a tendency to speak too quickly for them, and they get confused easily. Remember Mr. Rogers? He spoke very slowly to children, which made it easier for them to follow what he was saying.

In general, the older a child is, the quicker he is at thinking. However, not all older children process information quickly, and that can make a huge difference in the classroom.

Many students who struggle in school are struggling because everything is moving too quickly for them. This does not mean they are not smart. It simply means they need extra time to think.

Here is something you can do to figure out whether this is a problem for your child. Think about Mr. Rogers and mimic his speech pattern with your child. See if this helps him to understand what you are asking him to do. You can also limit the number of instructions you give at one time.

For example, these instructions move too quickly and include too much information at one time: “Go to the kitchen and get the silverware for dinner. Don’t forget we will need a soup spoon tonight. And use the blue napkins when you set the table.” 

It is better to divide this into shorter, slower (Mr. Rogers speed), separate statements. “Get the silverware for dinner.” (Pause) “We need soup spoons.” (Pause) “Use the blue napkins.”

Some children who think slowly never get a chance to answer a question before someone else answers it. This can happen at home with a brother or sister. It also happens in school. Parents and teachers have to deliberately structure the situation so that everyone gets a chance to speak. When I teach, I often say, “I’m going to ask a question. (Pause) I do not want anyone to answer. (Pause) Think about the answer. (Pause) Give me a thumbs-up if you know it.”

If you feel that slowing down when you speak helps your child, let her teacher know what you have discovered. Accommodations like this are simple to do and can make a big difference in school.

As I was reading comments people posted to some of my earlier blogs, I realized how different we are from each other. This is a good thing! We need diversity in order to thrive as a society. There were several comments on my blog post about whether writing something down can help you remember it. One person said she writes first, then later types. Another said he just enters information into his smart phone. Another said she absolutely must write what she needs to later remember. These comments made me chuckle, but they also made me think again about how children need to figure out for themselves what works best for them in school.

Here are some ideas to discuss with your child. It might take some experimenting to find out what strategy works the best:


  • Listen carefully to an explanation of something being taught and think about how it connects with something else you already know. For example, if your daughter is studying Newton’s First Law of Motion she might think about how the seat belt feels when the car slows down quickly.


  • Drawing pictures of concepts as you learn them can be helpful. People who think visually will remember better if pictures are associated with the learning. Don’t forget to add color, because that can help with memory, too.


  • Out-of-the-box thinking might help some students learn best. For example, making up a story, dance, poem or song might be a successful way to remember. This would never occur to most students, but it might be just the thing for another.


  • As parents, we tend to think that what worked for us will work for our children. This may or may not be true. Be careful not to force your child to study the same way you studied if he has already found out your method doesn’t work for him.



Note to students and parents: Students, it is important to keep trying to figure out your personal learning style. Once you understand it, you can take steps to improve in school. Parents, you can help by asking your child to think about what seems to work. Ask, “What do you like the best in school?” Thinking about that can often give clues about a child’s strengths.

For more information about learning styles and school success, read SchoolFamily.com’s article What is Your Child’s Learning Style? and search for “learning style” to find many articles on this topic here at SchoolFamily.com.  


Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?