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Once students leave elementary school, they are expected to be able to read well. But there is little help beyond the elementary school level when a student struggles to understand his textbooks. The reading level of middle and upper school textbooks varies, and certain books can be too hard for some kids to grasp. These students can learn strategies that might help.

Most textbooks used in school have questions to answer at the end of each section. A good strategy is to coach your child to read and think about those questions before beginning to read. The thinking time is to make sure he understands what each question is asking. This provides a framework for him as he begins to read. He can be looking for answers to those questions as he reads. This does more than just provide answers to the questions; it keeps him actively thinking.

Another strategy is to stop reading when confused. Your child should ask herself which part she understands and which she does not. She should annotate the hard part using sticky notes (“I don’t get this.”). She should ask, “Is this a vocabulary problem? Does this rely on earlier learning that I did not understand? Should I reread this part to see if I get it the second time through?” Regardless of her decision, she will know she needs to ask her teacher for help if she takes the time to make note of the problem areas.

It is possible that Rewordify might help your child. It is a free website where you can enter text and have it change it into words that are easier to understand. Unless his textbook is in digital form, though, he will have to type in the passage he is struggling with. Even so, it might be especially useful if the problem is that the textbook has too many difficult words in a passage.

There are many reading comprehension strategies. For more ideas, read Seven Strategies To Teach Students Text Comprehension. The secret is to realize that reading hard school books takes more time than reading for pleasure. Your child should set aside plenty of time when homework involves a reading assignment. Check the questions at the end of each section before beginning to read, stop and think when confused, and try Rewordify. To really understand, your brain has to be actively engaged and you need to take your time.

Staying involved in what is going on with your middle schooler is a tricky endeavor. She wants more freedom and you want to give it to her, but at the same time you don’t want to be completely cut off from her school life.


But there’s no need to toss your hands up and assume it’s a lost cause. We have several ways for you to stay involved (without your child thinking you’re being a nag).


1. Connect with your child’s teacher so you understand what’s expected 

2. Go to school meetings and events 

3. Volunteer to help out behind the scenes 

4. Volunteer to drive kids to clubs or sports competitions 

5. Post a family calendar to highlight everyone’s activities


We have lots more resources to help. Check out:


10 Tips for Middle School Parents


Moving Up to Middle School


College Prep Guide: Middle School


Help Middle Schoolers Manage Their Homework 


Middle and High School: Helping Teens Solve Their Own Problems 


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Summer is an important time for middle and upper school students to think ahead to what they want for themselves after high school. If the plan involves going to college, then taking action now can improve the chance of getting into the college of choice. Our college counselor meets with middle and high school students and their parents. She advises them to choose an extracurricular activity they are passionate about and to stick with it throughout their middle and high school career. College admissions people like to see this for a number of reasons.

First, colleges like to have students who are well-rounded and have passions that involve pursuits other than academics. Playing a sport, taking piano lessons (or another instrument), helping with  Special Olympics, or becoming a Girl Scout or Boy Scout throughout middle and high school all show that there is more to this student than just getting good grades.

Second, staying with a single activity not only shows that your child has passion for it, but also that she can stick with something. If she starts playing a sport and then quits, the message she sends is that she cannot follow through with a commitment. The same is true for music lessons or other extracurricular activities. She doesn’t need to limit herself to only one thing, but ideally there should be at least one that she sticks with for the long term.

Third, deep friendships develop with others who have the same passion. It is likely that your son will bond with other boys who participate in the same activity. When he leaves home to go to college, he may be able to participate in the same extracurricular activities there, where he can make new friends quickly. In some cases, he may get scholarship money because of his skill, but more likely he will participate in club-level extracurricular activities. In either case, colleges like for their students to have close friends and to participate in campus life.

Take some time to talk with your child about how important it is to choose something of interest to her and to stick with it throughout middle and high school. It can be almost anything—from community service to taking art lessons or playing sports. Whatever it is, if your child can demonstrate her commitment to it, she will increase her chances of getting into the college of her choice and make some lifelong friends along the way.

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Many teachers have flipped their classrooms. What was once taught in class is now homework, and what was once homework is completed in class. Teachers videotape their lessons, and students watch the lessons at home. In class the next day, students can work on their homework when their teacher is there to help. There are many advantages to this approach, the biggest of which is that students can do their homework without asking parents to help them. There are disadvantages as well, though, since not every child has access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Flipped classrooms are successful for a number of reasons. Teams of teachers can work together to create excellent videos for their students to watch. Students can watch them in a distraction-free setting at home where they can get more from the lesson than they could when there are other students around to distract them. Students who need to hear a lesson more than once can watch the video as many times as they need. They can stop it and think about what was said or to look up information in their textbook. Many students learn well when concepts are presented visually.

When students are asked to answer questions or work math problems at home, they often struggle. They need their teacher’s help, but their teacher is not available. With the flipped model, the teacher is present when students need them the most. When it is time to study for a test or exam, students can return to the videos that cover concepts they are still having trouble with. And last, students may be able to watch their lessons even when they are absent from school.

Even though there are many advantages to flipped classrooms, there are some risks. A huge concern is that not every child has access to the Internet at home or there is competition between siblings for one family computer. When students watch their lesson online at home, they do not have the ability to ask their teacher questions along the way. Teachers normally see how well their students are learning in class and adjust their instruction immediately to meet the needs of those students who are not getting it. With this model, there are no students to give the teacher the necessary feedback. If a student does not watch the video for homework, he is totally unprepared for class the next day. Finally, not every student can learn from videos. Without the social interactions in the classroom, these students zone out while trying to pay attention.

If your child’s teacher is flipping his classroom, you should check out Videonot.es to provide an easy way for your child to take notes as she watches her lessons. Videonot.es works with several commonly used video formats that teachers use. It can help your child focus her attention and stay engaged as she watches.

Even though there are some negatives when flipping a classroom, many teachers have had a lot of success with it. Parents like it too, because they are less involved in helping their children with their homework. Most important, students are learning a lot in flipped classrooms, perhaps more than they would have in a traditional classroom.


> The Flipped Classroom: What It Means for You and Your Child

There is a movement in education to improve what we are offering our students. Some schools have completely revamped their curriculum to make sure they are teaching kids the skills they will need to be successful in the information age. This trend is often referred to as “21st century education” or “21c education.” These skills are typically divided into three categories: learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills. They are skills identified by businesses as necessary for career success in the modern world.

The learning skills are critical thinking, creative thinking, collaborating, and communicating. To teach these skills, teachers might present real-life problems to students who typically work in small groups to solve them. If there is access to the Internet, students often collaborate online when seeking solutions to the problems. They plan their reports back to the class and frequently are required to present orally. The communication component of 21c learning includes all kinds of communication—digital, written, and oral. There is an emphasis on communicating globally, and it is not unusual to see students discussing possible solutions with experts or students in other schools around the world.

Literacy skills include information, media, and technology. Students are bombarded with way more information than they can actually process. They must learn how to find high-quality information and to identify bias. Students learn how to present their work using a variety of media, and hopefully they are at least exposed to a variety of technology solutions to society’s problems. Students are expected to become experts at using and learning new technology.

Life skills such as the ability to take initiative and be productive are extremely important. It is necessary to be flexible when others you work with have different ideas that are equal to or better than your own. Social skills are more important now than ever before, especially since we can now easily communicate with diverse groups of people from around the world. Leadership skills are needed, as well, and schools are increasing opportunities to learn how to lead others. People who are the best at initiation, productivity, flexibility, social skills, and leadership rise quickly up the career ladder.

Most schools are giving thought to providing more 21c learning opportunities for their students. It is difficult and expensive to change from traditional ways of teaching and learning; it will take time before 21c education is widespread. Students in schools where it is the norm report that they enjoy it, and they appreciate the intellectual challenge and authentic learning opportunities. Students who develop these learning, literacy, and life skills should be more competitive in today’s marketplace.

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Parents have asked me before why their child has attention and executive functioning issues now that they are in middle school when they handled elementary school just fine. Executive functioning is the ability to manage day-to-day activities. People with a strong ability tend to be organized and on time, and get their work done efficiently. I recently visited with Dr. Steve Butnik, an expert on attention deficits and executive functioning issues. He pointed out that attention and executive functioning deficits do not manifest themselves until a person is placed in a situation where the demands exceed his ability to handle them. There are even adults who make it fine all the way through their schooling, but find that they now have trouble in their career setting.

In elementary school, children are in a classroom that is structured both physically and intellectually. The room is well-organized, and tasks are broken into chunks that children can manage on their own. Their activities from one day to the next are predictable. In middle and upper school, though, students move from classroom to classroom. Each teacher organizes their room differently, and students are expected to be able to manage large parts of their long-term projects without their teacher’s constant guidance. Even some adults find they have trouble concentrating and getting their work done in a cubicle environment like you find in many companies. The sounds of other people talking or visiting and visual distractions can be too much to filter out.

No matter when attention or executive functioning issues manifest themselves, they can hinder success. Educational psychologists can help diagnose the problem and suggest ways to manage better. In most cases, planning what will happen when, organizing the workspace, and reducing sound and visual distractions can help.

Read Managing Middle School With ADHD for more information about attention issues in middle school.

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Transitioning from middle to upper school is difficult for many students. In my area of the country, 9th grade is considered upper school. Often students are not aware that grades in upper school are more important than they were before. They are used to calculate the GPA that colleges use to decide acceptances, and prospective employers may look at the GPA to determine the best candidates for their open positions. School suddenly becomes more serious, and this is scary for some kids. Here are some things to discuss with your child regarding the move to upper school.

  • It is important to seek help quickly when things are not going well. Your child should not put off asking for help until he has gotten so far behind that it is impossible to get caught up. Many concepts build upon earlier concepts, so the sooner he meets with his teacher to get clarification, the better.
  • Certain grades are more important than others. In many school districts, the semester and year-end grades are the ones that factor into the GPA. Therefore, if your child has a low grade for the first marking period, she still has time to raise it before the semester ends.
  • Exams can be helpful in raising grades. Types of exams, which classes give exams, and the weighting of exams in the final grade vary from school to school. In schools where exams make up a significant percentage of the semester or year-end grade, doing well on exams can raise the grade up a whole letter grade, at times.
  • One bad semester (or even year) does not mean college is out of the question. Colleges look at the big picture. If your child has one bad year followed by three much better ones, they will be impressed that she turned it around.

If your child is moving into high school now, encourage him to focus on working hard. Remind him that success in school and life is nearly always the result of a strong work ethic rather than being the smartest person in the class.

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Most adolescent students have doubts about themselves. Your child may feel that everyone around him is smarter, has more friends, looks better, or is a better athlete. He might think he doesn’t have much chance of succeeding in life. You can help him learn how to handle these feelings and gain more control over what happens to him.

Adolescence is a time of change. It is when your children change from being dependent on parents or guardians to being self-reliant. It is difficult, and often teens feel inadequate. But even though they feel awkward and ugly, others see them quite differently. This is a time when parents can be most helpful, yet teens often do not talk about their concerns. Parents can initiate this discussion and can assure their teens that their feelings are normal.

I have written many times about success in school and life. If your child is willing to work hard, study, and turn in all the work she owes, it is very likely that she will do well in school. It is important that she accepts responsibility for her actions and acknowledges when she makes a mistake. If her first thought is "My teacher didn't tell me," then she needs to give some thought to what determines success. Parents can help her to understand the importance of a good work ethic. Parents should also allow her to suffer the consequences of her actions by not rescuing her from failure. The same is true whether talking about success in academics, sports, art, music, or even friendship. (On the other hand, if your child is working hard but still not succeeding, then it may be time to seek help.)

When you hear your child say disparaging things about herself, encourage her by explaining that her feelings are quite normal and a part of adolescence. Help her to be her very best and encourage her to take charge of her life and work. Help her to connect her hard work to success by praising her efforts rather than her intellect. In this way, she will be successful now in school and later in life after school. She will gradually feel better about herself and realize how special she is to many people.

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The fact is, most students do not know how to prepare to take exams. For example, many do not understand that it is much better to study in many short blocks of time instead of trying to cram everything in the night before an exam. This takes some planning and discipline that many students don’t know how to do. Here is a suggested schedule.

  • About three weeks before an exam, take time to organize everything. Your child needs to look for every test, review guide, and important handout she received since the beginning of the semester. If there is a test she did poorly on (or lost), she needs to find out from her teacher an acceptable way to get a replacement. (Personally, I tell my students to ask a friend who did well on it if they will let them have a copy of theirs. But some teachers might not allow this.) If she isn’t sure what tests she had, she might be able to look at the teacher’s online grade book to see how many test grades she had throughout the semester. Another strategy might be to compare her tests to a friend’s. Hopefully, between the two of them, they will have all of them.
  • By the time exams roll around, your child might already know most of what is on them. She doesn’t need to spend a lot of time studying what she already knows. The trick is to figure out what she knows and what she doesn’t. She should start by very slowly reading through her notes. As she reads, she should stop and think about each concept. If she feels she knows it, she should keep moving. If she is confused, she should mark it with a highlighter or red pen. She should do the same for the tests and review guides—mark anything she feels he might not know.
  • The next step is to figure out how to learn the highlighted material. Is this something she needs to meet with her teacher about? Would a study group with friends be enough? Is it possible to learn the concepts by rereading the textbook or working the problems again? Does she need to make flash cards or a study chart?
  • The final step is to set up a calendar with study times for each class. Remember that it’s best to study 15-20 minutes on each subject spaced out over several nights than to study the same amount of time all at once.

Exams are a great time to change learning from temporary into permanent. The time students spend studying really improves long-term memory of those concepts. Remind your child that the above steps need to be done for each class she is taking. That’s why this process takes several weeks. As parents, you can help your child by planning for quiet, stay-at-home weekends before exam week starts. With proper exam prep, there will be cause to celebrate the weekend after they are all finished! 

The printable handout "Preparing To Take Exams" contains more helpful tips.

Last week, I was invited to the middle school where I work to hear student presentations. Their assignment was to create a project using Explain Everything that had several slides. The purpose of the presentation was to introduce themselves to one another and their guests (their new principal and me). I enjoyed their presentations a lot. The students did a wonderful job and were proud of what they created. I was also intrigued by the app they used to create their presentations.

Explain Everything is available for iPad and Android for $2.99. You can watch a video about it on their website. What I liked about it the most is that it is simple to learn to use, yet a very powerful tool for creative minds. Students can write text, annotate, illustrate by drawing, import videos or photos, create movies, and much more. Their work is automatically saved as they work. It can be played back in presentation mode, or exported into a variety of formats to share with others.

There are so many free or inexpensive apps available that it is hard to wade through them all to find really good ones. I would be interested to hear from you if you have found educational apps that your child likes to use. Please comment! You might be interested in these other blogs about apps that I use with students:

Creative Ways To Make and Use Flash Cards
Voice-to-Text Software = Great Homework Tool for Kids Who Have Difficulty Writing
Technology Solutions for Reading and Writing Difficulties

This guest blog post is by Erika Cook, a high school administrator who works directly with parents and students.

Help Teens Solve Their Own ProblemsWhen your teen has a problem at school, what should you do? Perhaps your child has a streak of missing assignments, feels the teacher made a grading error, or just plain doesn’t get along with the teacher. It was easy in elementary school because it was natural just to call the teacher. However, once your child reaches middle school, it is harder to know when to get involved as a parent and when you should encourage your child to speak up for himself at school.

Oftentimes, your teen can see his teacher outside of class to review a grade, discuss learning needs, or schedule good old-fashioned help, which should solve most issues. Most teachers promote the idea of teens depending on themselves for their learning; it’s seen as an important life skill.

When talking to your teen about seeing her teacher, a few of these possible talking points might be nice conversation-starters. (Remind her not to forget to use “please” and “thank you.”)

  • Will you review the important causes of the Civil War?
  • Is it possible to go over the quiz questions so I can learn from my mistakes?
  • Since I have a hard time taking notes, do you have any graphic organizers I could use?
  • I am missing multiple-choice test questions; what advice do you have?
  • Would you look at my paper and give me some feedback on how to improve C-level writing?
  • How would you suggest I study for the test on Hamlet?
  • How do I improve my performance during tryouts next season?
  • What should be my next step to keep improving in this sport?
  • What resources are available for me to get help in biology?

When and where should your child approach the teacher? You might want to brainstorm with your teen about a good time to talk to the teacher. Encourage your child to see her teacher during the teacher’s designated preparation periods or before or after school. Students don’t always realize that their teachers are very busy right before and after class. And help your child figure out where the teacher might be at the right time. Sometimes it isn’t as easy as one classroom; a lot of teachers travel from room to room and have a desk in a shared office.

To help your child practice in advance how the conversation will go, you can role-play and pretend to be the teacher. This could help build up your child’s confidence to address the situation. One important aspect for your teen to remember is to focus on the problem and not skirt the issue.

Ask your child whether he has tried talking to anyone else at school about the problem. This might include a counselor, social worker, resource teacher, or administrator. If it makes sense, you should encourage your teen to make a “friend” at the school to help with this and future issues.

These tips for guiding your teens to solve their own problems, while understanding when and how you should get involved, will hopefully help you and your child solve school issues. Just remember, teachers and parents are on the same team; everyone wants your student to succeed. If you use respect, gratitude, and kindness with teachers, you and your teen should have excellent results.

Erika Cook

Erika Cook holds a PhD in educational policy and leadership and an MA in curriculum. She serves as an associate principal at one of America’s top-ranked high schools, and she spends her days educating parents and students about the high school world. She has taught in classrooms ranging from special needs to Advanced Placement and was the recipient of two Fulbright scholarships.

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Adolescence is a difficult time of life. I frequently hear my students complain about their family, their parents, and life in general. Many adolescents feel that their parents do not love them. From my perspective, many of them have a great life, and there really isn’t anything to be upset about. I know for sure that their parents care tremendously about them. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter what I think—it’s how they feel that matters. They are not happy. But parents may be able to help.

Some parents give their teens things like a new computer or electronic gadgets to cheer them up. Or they give them extra money to spend however they want. This can bring temporary “happiness” and immediate attention from friends. But it doesn’t take long for that happiness to wear off.

What teens really need is a sense of purpose in life. They need to know that they are important, loved, and respected by their friends and family. They should participate in family business that affects them such as preparing meals, planning events, maintaining the home, or selecting what to buy. They feel like you respect them when you include them this way. They know that their purpose is to be a valued member of the family who can help make meaningful.

Teens need to feel empathy for others who are less fortunate. In general, adolescents are pretty much focused on themselves. This is natural and not something parents need to worry about. But parents can help them to see that there are others in the world, and that many people do not have their basic needs met. The best way for them to learn this is to witness their parents helping others by giving their time, energy, and money. Involving your teen in these activities can help them to focus on others, which will lead to feelings of self-worth and satisfaction.

Finally, teens need to understand that luck does not determine what happens to them—they need to know that hard work makes the difference. I have personally witnessed this in my classroom many, many times. It is the student who works the hardest who experiences the most success. Once they understand this concept, they feel a sense of control, which is extremely important for everyone—not just teens.

If you have a son or daughter who is feeling down about life, start off by giving them a hug and telling them how much you love them. Have a conversation to find out what is happening in their life. Most of the time, the feelings of despair are only temporary. Sometimes, though, they do not go away. In these cases, your child may be depressed and need professional help to regain a sense of hope for the future. Life can be tough for adolescents, but knowing that you are there for them makes it a lot easier.

>Tips for Parents of Middle Schoolers

>Today's Multitasking Teens

The phone rings and I recognize the school’s number on my caller ID. It’s not a number I want to see. The school doesn’t call to say hello. It’s the school nurse, and she’s calling to tell me that my daughter has ringworm.

My first emotion is humiliation. No, it’s not concern for my daughter’s wellbeing or relief that it’s not something serious. Instead, I’m embarrassed, and I feel like a bad mom. My belief that it’s okay to go six nights between baths has caught up with me.

At least she doesn’t have head lice.

I pick Celia up. There it is, a dime-sized ring over her eye. I saw it a few days earlier and thought she scratched herself in her sleep (she chews her nails to the nub, so I admit that theory was weak). I just wasn’t concerned. Bad mom!

When we see the pediatrician, I learn that ringworm has nothing to do with worms. It’s a fungus. She could have picked it up anywhere. It is not an emblem of poor hygiene (or six nights between baths). And it’s no big deal. Yes, it’s contagious. But the infection is harmless and treatable. The doctor writes the name of an over-the-counter ointment and orders Celia back to school.

 6 Childhood Illnesses That Are Icky, Gross, and Disgusting (but Harmless)

When I take Celia back to school, I get raised eyebrows from the front office staff and the nurse. I deliver Celia to her teacher and explain that we put ointment on the fungal infection and that she has been cleared to return to school. (I sidestep the word ringworm.)

I kiss my child and return to work.

For today, at least, I’m not a bad mom after all. But why do we let intense, irrational emotions throw us into a tailspin when it comes to our kids? Why are we so quick to assume we’ve failed every time the school calls?

Sometimes kids get icky illnesses or things. Warts. Cold sores. Pinkeye. There may be ooze and pus involved, and that can be disgusting. But instead of worrying about whether we’re bad moms (we’re not), it’s better to face the yuck factor and deal with it.


Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, winning several awards, including a public service citation from the Associated Press for her exposure of grade inflation. Since becoming a freelancer in 2007, her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, and Adoptive Families magazine. Ghezzi lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.

Joshua, Henry, Isabella, Matthew, Jasper, Jack, Katie, and Paige.

These are just a few of the names of children who have come to our house for playdates and parties for my sons. Between my two kids there have been numerous birthday parties on the weekends, countless playdates, and lots of social gatherings with their friends’ families.

My wife and I have become seasoned experts in both caring for other people’s children with food allergies during parties and playdates, as well as placing our trust in other parents when dropping our boys off at their homes. At times, this hasn’t been as easy as it sounds, since one of our boys has food allergies, as do a handful of our sons’ friends. 

With planning, education, and understanding, however, taking on the responsibility of hosting a child with food allergies at a playdate or party—and allowing your food-allergic child to be in the care of other parents—can be safely done and is ultimately rewarding. 

My wife and I aren’t alone in these experiences. Recent studies show that about 8 percent of U.S. children have a food allergy. That means there's a good chance that at some point you will be taking care of a child with a food allergy. Food allergy awareness and understanding are key. Both will allow you to safely include a food-allergic child—who could otherwise easily be excluded—at fun parties and playdates.  

Food allergies among students in U.S. schools have become more and more common as well. And tragically, food allergy-related deaths continue to occur in and out of school. 

Some school communities have become divided over policies set up to protect children with food allergies, such as peanut-free lunch tables and the like. However, food allergy education and awareness in our school communities is critical for the safety of kids with food allergies. These kids need to have their food allergies managed at all times and in all circumstances. Remember, allergic reactions can be life threatening.

To help, here are some basic Food Allergy Management Tips:

  • Know how to prevent allergic reactions from occurring. There needs to be a responsible adult present when hosting a food allergic child, who knows how to avoid a potential allergic reaction. This is done by accurately reading food labels, avoiding cross contact, knowing about hidden ingredients, and communicating effectively about the food allergic child’s allergy. Children can be messy eaters and inadvertently serving food that is an allergen to other kids may put the food-allergic child at risk. If you are not comfortable with preparing separate food for a child with food allergies, it is perfectly acceptable to ask that safe foods be provided by the child’s parents. Some families may even feel more at ease providing their own food to make it easier on you, and also to reassure themselves (and their child) that the food their child will eat is safe.


  • Emergency preparedness is a must. A person who can recognize allergic reactions and knows how to respond with the appropriate emergency medicine, must also be present. If you’re hosting the visit of a child with a food allergy, make sure you have a copy of the child’s emergency allergy action plan (a document that outlines what to do for an allergic reaction), and his epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen or the like), if the child’s doctor prescribed one. (Here is a printable Food Allergy Drop-off Form). The parent of the food-allergic child can teach you how to administer an epinephrine auto-injector using a training device. If you are not comfortable with this responsibility, invite the parent to stay for the party or playdate.


If you prefer, there’s also a printable summary of Tips for Managing Food Allergies, as outlined in the points above.

Knowing how to avoid food allergens and always being prepared for an allergic reaction will not only help you safely host a child with a food allergy but will also help you do your part in creating a community of inclusion and support. Your children can also partner with you in this effort by gaining an awareness and acceptance of their classmates’ differences. With a solid understanding of food allergy management you can make a huge difference in a food allergic child’s feeling of acceptance—and possibly even save a life.

Please note that this post is intended to increase awareness and encourage you to obtain more information from additional resources. Before making any changes in management please discuss with the parents/healthcare providers.

Helpful Resources for Food Allergy Awareness:


Michael Pistiner, MD, MMSc is a pediatric allergist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and volunteers at Children’s Hospital Boston. He is the father of a child with food allergies and serves as a voluntary consultant for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, School Health Services. He is chairman of the medical advisory team for Kids with Food Allergies Foundation, and serves on the board of Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, New England Chapter. Dr. Pistiner is the author of Everyday Cool with Food Allergies, a children’s book designed to teach basic food allergy management skills to preschool and early school age children, and is co-creator of AllergyHome.org, a website that provides free modules designed to increase food allergy awareness in the community.


Part of my responsibility at our school is to monitor what students wear, making sure they follow the dress code. Middle school students like to push the limits of the dress code; that’s expected from adolescents when they are trying to discover who they are and who they would like to become as they mature into adults. Each school has its own dress code and its own methods for interpreting the code. Some schools are very strict—others less so. I thought it might be helpful to understand why schools need dress codes, why they’re enforced, and how the dress code at your child's school will affect your back-to-school shopping.

Every family has its own sense of right and wrong, and differing levels of parental involvement. That said, some students come to school dressed provocatively; perhaps they snuck out of the house without a parent seeing them, or they changed clothes after they got to school. As is often the case, when I speak with them about how they are dressed, they miraculously have something else on hand to change into! They know what they’re wearing is inappropriate, but they think they might get away with it. Or perhaps, they make their statement just to arrive at school dressed that way, with plans to change clothes once at school.

In general, the purpose of the dress code is to help to create an environment conducive to learning at school. When underwear is showing or too much skin is exposed, students think more about each other than what they are being taught. Many students already have trouble paying attention in school. When you add distracting clothing, it’s just that much harder for them. Other parts of the code are safety-related. For example, some students like to wear their pants dragging on the ground or leave their shoes untied, both of which are unsafe when going up and down stairs. A third purpose of the code is to teach students that what is appropriate clothing for one place (like a birthday party) is not appropriate for another place (like work or school).

Many years ago, I had a student who got his first job over spring break. He was working at the movie theater taking tickets as people entered. After a few weeks he was fired. I asked him about it, and he told me that he did not wear the white shirt and black tie that was required of him. I asked him why he didn’t wear it and he said, “It was stupid. It was too hot in there and I shouldn’t have to wear a tie.” He suffered a severe consequence for the decision he made to ignore the dress code.

My point in sharing this story is to show that dress codes are a part of life. We wear certain kinds of clothes to church, to work, to the beach, to the prom, and to school.

It is important when shopping for school clothes this summer that parents obtain a copy of the school’s dress code in advance and help their kids select appropriate clothing. This will make concentrating in the classroom easier for everyone—and it’ll keep students safe and teach them that appearance is important.

I like to tell my students that school is your job right now. Dress for success in school just like you will dress for success at your job in the future.

Does your middle school child love birds, but then he gets frustrated when trying to identify them? Many children do. Unfortunately, field guides that help identify birds can be really hard to use, especially for children who aren’t good at reading and spelling. Luckily, there is a great website called WhatBird.com that is amazingly easy to use.

If your child selects the “Expert” tab, he can enter answers to questions like where he saw the bird, what color it was, and what its general shape was. Most of these answers are in picture form, so even a poor reader can answer correctly. Depending on the information entered, the website will tell him what kind of bird he likely saw. It will also play the sounds the bird makes so your child can begin to identify birds by what he hears.

There is also an app called iBird Explorer created by Mitch Waite Press, which is free for Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Google’s Android, and Amazon’s Kindle Fire. (And though the iPod isn’t listed, my young grandson recently downloaded the free app onto his iPod and it worked great.) It is easy to carry along when you and your child go out bird watching.

When using What Bird? and iBird Explorer, children learn to:


  • use field guides in a format that is easier for them to access than traditional guides;
  • spend time outside looking for birds instead of staying inside playing electronic games;
  • improve their observational skills when trying to figure out which bird they saw (often there are two that are very similar like a purple finch and a house finch);
  • identify individual birds and learn about them and their habitats;
  • develop an appreciation for nature while having fun


It is very important to help your struggling student find something she can really do well. Who knows—perhaps you’ll have a budding ornithologist on your hands, and “playing” with the iBird app will be the start of a lifelong interest or career!


Pam Broviak of Illinois made headlines recently when she blogged about how officials at her daughter’s school forced the middle-schooler to show them comments on her Facebook page last fall, allegedly because another student was overheard making comments about the girl’s sexual activity.

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Some things in this story are confusing, and it’s more than odd—even inappropriate, perhaps—that Borviak blogged about the incident on a public works blog she and others use in their role as public works employees (Broviak’s page on Quora lists her as a civil engineer for an Illinois municipality). She says she decided to post on the blog because her daughter’s social media privacy violation is exemplary of the current debate about government and employer intrusion into employees’ social media accounts.

Nonetheless, what’s really at issue here is student privacy vis-à-vis school officials’ self-described need to know. Broviak says her daughter has told her that other students at her Illinois middle school often feel forced into showing their social media pages to school principals and others, when questioned. 

What do you think? Take our poll and cast your vote: Do school officials have a right to look at a student’s private social media sites?

Often when schools do standardized testing, they report the scores in percentiles.

Percentiles are not the same thing as percentages (percents), even though they sound like they should be. Percentages are what most teachers use when grading their student’s work.Percentiles are numbers that show how a child compares to others. They are used on standardized tests that have been given to a large group of students before—this is the norm group.

If your child takes a regular test in the classroom, the chances are pretty good the teacher will give her a grade based on how many points she missed out of the total number of possible points. For example, if there are 100 points on the test and your daughter misses 15 points, her score will be 85 percent. This is calculated by dividing the points earned (85) by the number of possible points (100) and then multiplying that answer by 100. Note that this score does not tell you how well she did compared to other students.

Standardized tests, in contrast to regular tests, are given to large groups of students at various age levels. Students who take the same test later have their scores compared to a large norm group made up of students who took the test before. A percentile compares your child’s performance to these students who are the same age. An 85th percentile score means that your son scored better than 85 percent of the students in that large comparison group. Another way to think about it is this: If you had 100 students in the comparison group who are the same age, your child did better than 85 of them. This would be a very high percentile score.

When some parents see that their child’s result is in the 50th percentile, they think their child did poorly on the test. Instead, this means the student is right where you expect she should be! This is average. Above the 50th percentile is above average. Below the 50th percentile is below average.

Another score you are likely to see is the “Grade Equivalent” score. I will write about that in my blog post next week, here at SchoolFamily.com.

Parents, teachers, and students worry a lot about these tests and percentile results, so it is important to understand what the scores mean when you receive them.

For ideas for how to help your child manage the stress of taking standardized tests, read my earlier blog post about high stakes testing.


When children struggle in school, they are often having difficulty with many things. They may have poor ability to focus their attention, low reading and spelling skills, working memory issues, or problems with executive functioning.

They may have problems putting things in order, writing legibly, or have problems with vocabulary.

As parents, we want to see them get help in all these areas at once. We want to “fix” them right away. Unfortunately, these difficulties are complicated and require a lot of time before a child improves.

I have worked with many, many struggling children in my years in the classroom. I have found that it is best to take each issue and work on it individually.

I recommend that you identify the number one issue that is keeping your child from being successful and concentrate on that.

In the meantime, parents and teachers need to make accommodations for the other problems. For example, if you, your child, and your child’s teachers agree that attention is her greatest issue, then focus your efforts on figuring out how to help her with attention. This might include having her evaluated for an attention deficit disorder and even considering medication to help.

It might include teaching your child strategies to deal with her attention problems.

In the meantime, work with your child’s teacher to figure out ways to accommodate for the other problems until attention is under better control. At that point, select another issue upon which to focus.

Trying to fix everything at once can lead to a sense of frustration or, in the worst case, feeling hopeless.

Encourage your child and help him see what he is good at doing. As I have said many times before, these issues are often more of a problem while in school, and school won’t last forever! At that point, he can concentrate on his gifts and strengths.

Editor’s note: SchoolFamily.com blogger Livia McCoy has written in-depth blog posts about many of the issues she mentions in this post. If you’ve missed any and would like to read more on specific topics, here they are, by title:


Creating a Friendly Environment for ADHD Children


When a Child Struggles to Read: What a Parent Needs to Know


Can “Working Memory” Problems Cause Difficulty in School?


Executive Functioning—How it Affects a Student in School


What Does It Mean To Have A "Sequencing" Problem?


Does My Child Have Dysgraphia?


How to Help Your Child Improve His or Her Vocabulary


 SchoolFamily.com Glossary: "accommodation"


ADHD and Medication: Should You Consider It for Your Child?


SchoolFamily.com’s Building Attention Span Article Archive



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Students who struggle in school often have gifts in areas that do not relate to academics. For example, they may be amazing artists, musicians, athletes, actors or dancers. When thinking about summer plans for these students, make sure to include plenty of time for them to spend doing these activities. They already spend most of their life doing what they are not so good at doing! They need to be encouraged to develop their gifts.

I have this conversation often with parents. They say their child needs help with reading, math, writing, or spelling. And, they plan to book most of their summer time working on these skills. Of course, it is okay to work on skills during the summer. However, do not do that exclusively. Plan for them to spend more time doing the things they excel at doing than working on schoolwork.

When parents tell me their child wants to go to summer camp but it will interfere with summer school, I encourage them to allow their child to go to camp. It is important for students’ mental and physical health to spend time doing things they love, socializing with their peers, playing games, and generally having fun. It is also important that they have complete “down time”—nothing planned, nowhere to go, time to think, and time to imagine. It’s the best part about summer!

It is more likely your child will pursue a career in an area where he is gifted than in an area that relates to academics. And, it is more likely she will be successful in a career that matches her strengths instead of trying to do something she may never truly be good at doing. Summer time should be spent pursuing her interests as much as possible.

For more thoughts on this topic, read my earlier blog, School Is Not Life.



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