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SchoolFamily Voices

Join our bloggers as they share their experiences on the challenges and joys of helping children succeed in school.

Struggling Students Require More Energy To Learn

A person’s brain occupies approximately 2 percent of the body’s weight, yet it uses 25 percent of the body’s energy. This amount of energy is required to stay alive, move around, and think. Studies have shown that struggling students require more energy in order to process what they are learning, especially if what they are asked to do stresses weak abilities such as working memory or processing speed.

I led a learning differences simulation this week created by the Northern California Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Each station simulated what it is like to have a particular learning difference. For example, one activity is supposed to simulate an auditory processing problem. The students were supposed to be on a science field trip. They were told to listen to their group leader and do what she told them to do. The problem is that the students could hear their own group leader and five other group leaders all speaking at the same time. There were times when the other group leader’s voices were as loud or louder than their own. As I watched the participants try to do the activity, they looked very distressed and upset.

The whole event lasted a little over an hour. As I would escort participants between one simulation and the next, they often mentioned how exhausting the activities were. I heard more than once, “I can’t imagine how a student feels after struggling like this all day long.” The parents who participated left with a deep understanding of why their child comes home from school totally exhausted.

How can parents help? If your child has a hard time in school and comes home exhausted each day, there are several things you can do to help.

  • Make sure she gets plenty of rest. Children need more sleep than adults do. Many of my students come to school already sleepy, because they stayed up too late the night before. Sometimes it’s because they have their cell phone in bed with them and spend time visiting with their friends even after they are supposed to be asleep.
  • Provide for a healthy diet that includes protein for breakfast. I know many children do not like “normal” breakfast foods, but there are many nutritious foods they can eat in the morning that will give them extra energy throughout the early hours of the school day. It is also important to drink plenty of water throughout the day because your brain requires hydration to operate efficiently.
  • Exercise should also be a part of every child’s day. If they do not participate in sports or physical education programs at school, encourage them to play active games at home.
  • Drill and practice basic facts. Believe it or not, this can preserve energy. The brain won’t need so much extra energy to do these tasks. When struggling with something, the brain uses a lot more glucose than when facts are on “auto pilot”—some say as much as 7-10 times more energy is needed. For more information about the importance of drill and practice, read "Drill and Practice: The Basic Keys to Student Success."

 

> Eating, Sleeping, and Learning
> Breakfast Ideas for School Success

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Drill and Practice the Basics: Keys to Student Success

Students do better in school when they know their basic facts to an automatic level. If your child has to first figure out the basic information, then that information is what occupies her working memory. For example, if asked to write an academic paragraph about owning a pet, she should be thinking about the responsibilities of pet ownership. If she is instead thinking about how to write an academic paragraph, then her efforts go into creating the correct structure instead of making the paragraph interesting.

This helps us to understand why algebra students who drill five minutes at the beginning of each period on basic math facts do better in algebra. They can use their working memory for figuring out how to solve the algebra problem instead of trying to remember what seven times eight is or what the factors of 81 might be.

There is so much material to teach in each course that teachers often do not have the time to do drill and practice of basic information. This applies in all subjects. There is a tremendous amount of vocabulary to learn in science, dates and places in history, and rules of grammar and punctuation in writing. Whatever the subject, there is a body of knowledge that is considered “basic.” Without this basic information, higher-level thinking becomes too difficult to manage. (This can also apply to skills like handwriting, keyboarding, and reading.)

Parents can be great helpers with this task. My husband tells the story about how hard it was for him to learn his multiplication facts when he was in elementary school. He said that he would sit on a stool in the kitchen while his mother made dinner each night. She would call out the facts to him over and over again until he knew them. You might think that this would be torture to a child, but my husband remembers this time as being very special. He knew that his mother had a lot to do when she got home from work, yet she spent this time helping him be better prepared for school.

Students can learn strategies to do independently, as well. A previous blog shows how to use pictures to help learn vocabulary and this printable vocabulary chart tool can be adapted for most any drill and practice activity.

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Does Your Child Think in Three Dimensions?

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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Small Steps Can Improve Student Skills

Students who struggle in school often have many areas where they need to improve. This is true whatever the age. I currently teach high school students who struggle with student skills, and it is unreasonable to expect them to fix everything at once. Students should only work on one major issue at a time. If you limit what you are working on to one or two things, you can measure progress which encourages students to keep working.

Identify the problem. Whatever the problem is, the first step is to clearly identify the problem and come up with a possible solution. If your child forgets to write his name on his homework, there are steps to take to make this a habit—something he does without thinking. He must know what her teacher expects to be written in the heading and where it should be written. A sample of the correct heading should be posted near where your child does her homework. Once everyone is clear about expectations, the next step is to come up with a plan for how to change the behavior so that writing the proper heading is automatically something she does.

Guided practice. Whatever skill your child is working on, in the beginning he needs to practice with help. He will need to be reminded how to do it and monitored until he can do it without help. This takes time. Depending on the skill, it could take a long time. Children with executive functioning problems will especially need a lot of guided practice.

Independent practice. The next step is for him to practice by himself with you checking afterward to make sure he did it. It is a good idea during this stage to begin charting progress. Everyone needs to feel success and a bar chart or checklist is a visual way to see how well things are going. Some parents provide rewards for improved behavior, but I prefer to offer genuine praise for a job well done. Celebrate with an occasional trip to the frozen yogurt shop. Say, “You have made so much progress lately, I think we should celebrate.” My personal belief is that this will help your child become intrinsically motivated rather than motivated by constant rewards you offer.

Occasional check. With enough practice, your child should be independent and not need your frequent reminders and checking behind him. Occasionally, check to make sure he is still doing it and praise him for remembering. At this point, you can begin working on the next skill.

If your child can master two new student skills a month, in one school year he should experience a boost in self-confidence and perhaps improved grades.

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Reinforce the Homework Habits of Successful Students

Students who struggle in school often do not have the habits of successful students. Many of my students need reminders to do what other students do without thinking. You can help your child develop these “good student” skills by making sure she has everything she needs handy, reminding her to do them, and checking behind her to make sure she did.

Here is a list of homework habits students need in order to be successful in school.

  • Write a proper heading on the page. This includes your name, today’s date, name of the class, and your teacher’s name. To do this, students need plenty of paper, pens, and pencils handy. If your child uses a computer to do homework, make sure he has a printer with plenty of ink and paper. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “I did my homework, but my printer was out of ink. Do you want to see it?"
  • Use complete sentences when possible. It is a good idea to reflect the question in the answer. If the question is "Who was the first president of the United States?" the answer would be, "The first president of the United States was George Washington." Notice that key parts of the question appear in the answer. This not only helps develop sentence writing skills, but also helps when studying later for a test. It is easy to tell what the question was because it is reflected in the answer.
  • Staple multiple pages together. I have graded a student’s paper before and thought she did not finish the work. Then after I graded a few more papers I found the second page! The second page didn’t have her name on it. Luckily I realized whose it was and gave her the credit for the work. To do this, students need a stapler nearby.
  • Place completed homework in a safe place where it will stay neat, crisp, and easy to find. For an idea of how to do this, read my earlier piece, A Notebook System That Aids With Organization. Some teachers have a hard time seeing how excellent work is when it is written on paper that is wrinkled and torn.
  • Be ready to turn in homework when the first bell rings to start class. Students should not wait until the teacher asks for it. This demonstrates that they are prepared for class and ready to learn.

 

Habits take time to develop. If your child is struggling with these basic homework skills, print this out and post it near where he works at home. When he is finished, read through the bullet points and ask, “Did you do that?”

For additional ideas for how to help your child be successful as a student, you might want to read Back to School After Summer Vacation—6 Ways to Help Your Child Be Ready to Learn. It is important, though, to only work on one or two new skills at a time. Once those are mastered, add one or two more.

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Making Sports Accessible for All Students

Some students enjoy playing sports and are talented in that arena. Studies suggest that students who participate in sports tend to do better in school. In some sports, kids learn what it means to commit to a team. In others, they learn to challenge themselves to improve both physically and mentally. They learn discipline, time management, how to accept constructive criticism, how to follow directions, and many other skills that will benefit them later in school and life. Students also learn about healthy competition and sportsmanship through sports. And, they learn that hard work pays off with better performance. Sometimes teammates become lifelong friends.

Unfortunately, students who struggle in school may not be allowed to play on the school’s teams. Their grades may be too low, or they may be scheduled for after-school help sessions when practice is going on. For these kids, it is important to look for opportunities outside the school setting for them to participate. Many areas have neighborhood leagues, recreational clubs, and organizations that sponsor teams. If your child wants to play sports and schoolwork takes up too much time during the school year, perhaps playing on a team in the summer months makes sense. For ideas about kinds of sports and things to think about when selecting a sport, read Children and Sports: Choices for All Ages.

It is important for every person to spend time doing something they love and are good at doing. Sports might be that thing for your child.

> Sports Build Your Child's Self-Esteem

> Sports-Theme Worksheets

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Help Students Find Opportunities To Mentor Others

We have a science fair mentoring program at our school for students who have completed satisfactory projects in the past. These students are required to apply for the position and pass a test that proves they understand the scientific method, and if they meet the criteria, they mentor a younger student who is new to the school. I mention it because I have seen how wonderful mentoring is. It is wonderful for the student being mentored, and in many ways even more so for the mentor. If your child has an opportunity to be a mentor, encourage her to do it even if she isn’t sure she will be good at it.

Mentors need a little training before they begin. They must understand that the student they are mentoring has to do the project and the thinking. The mentor’s job is to provide support, but not to do the work for the younger student. I tell my students to ask leading questions, help them to read and spell if they need it, and even take dictation. But I tell them to never, ever do the work for them!

Here are some things students have said after they mentored a younger student.

  • I thought being a mentor would be easier than doing my own project, but I wound up spending more time! It was fun, though.
  • I learned that teaching other people is hard work! I am not cut out for teaching.
  • I realize that I’m good at organization and time management, and my mentee is terrible at that. It felt good to be able to teach her how to do that.
  • It was really hard to allow him to fail. I tried to ask questions and offer support, but he just didn’t want to do the work.
  • It was great to be able to talk to their teacher and find out what kind of help my mentee needed. That way I could focus on what is important.
  • I learned that I want to be a teacher. I loved helping my mentee and seeing him succeed with my help.

What amazes me about the mentoring program is the number of students who want to participate. Some serve as mentors for more than one year. The mentors learn how to give to others without expecting anything in return. They also learn more about their own talents. When everything is over, they have a younger student who will forever look up to them as the best person ever. The bond between mentor/mentee is special and something that cannot be formed in any other way. Mentoring builds self-confidence in both individuals—the mentor and the mentee. If there are no opportunities to mentor offered at your school, maybe there are opportunities to help through the local YMCA or at a church preschool. You might also want to read this article because it offers suggestions for important things to think about before becoming a mentor.

> 5 Meaningful Community Service Ideas for Teens

> Mentoring Can Be a Rewarding Summer Project for Your Teen

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Brain Development in Teens: Help Them Deal With Peer Pressure

A key area of the brain lies just behind the forehead. This area is called the prefrontal cortex, and it controls many high-level thought processes. Teens tend to make impulsive decisions and fail to consider the consequences of their behavior. It is the prefrontal cortex that controls this type of thinking. It also controls attention, problem-solving, social judgment, strategizing, planning, and deciding what behavior is appropriate and what is not.

The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until age 25. This explains why teenagers sometimes make poor decisions and do things impulsively. Their behavior often does not improve until their brain has finished developing.

When I teach health classes, I explain brain development to my students when we are studying substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol can damage neurons in the brain. Since the prefrontal cortex is not finished developing, substance abuse can permanently stunt its growth. My students usually ask why the drinking age is 21 instead of 25. We usually conclude that it would make more sense to be 25!

It is a good idea for parents to role-play situations their teens are likely to face as they attend parties or go places where they are unsupervised. Pretend to offer them a drink (or a smoke, etc.) and have them practice saying “no.” I always told my own children they could feel free to blame me by saying, “Are you kidding? My mom would absolutely kill me if I drank that.” The purpose of the role-play is to teach them how to say “no” to these activities without relying on their prefrontal cortex to help them decide. They will have practiced the right decision with their parents, making it easier when the time comes with their peers.

I was role-playing with my health students once. I said, “Hey, let’s see if your parents left the alcohol cabinet unlocked.” One student answered, “No. My prefrontal cortex is still growing and I don’t want to damage it.” Great answer!

Role-playing scenarios with your teen is a great way to help them learn how to respond to peer pressure and to become independent. It is multisensory instruction which increases the likelihood that the learning will “stick” in memory. Here are some ideas for scenes you could do.

You might also be interested in these 10 suggestions for helping your child cope with peer pressure.

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Life Beyond School Is Often Successful for Students With Learning Disabilities

Students who struggle in school are complicated. There are similarities between any two of them, but there are many more differences. I used to say this is why we should not label children as having a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, nonverbal learning disability, etc. But my recent fascination with autobiographies of successful adults with learning disabilities has made me realize that it can be a comfort to them to find out that there really is something “wrong” with them. As children, most of these successful adults simply felt stupid and lazy, because that is what they were told by the adults around them. When they found out they had dyslexia or another learning disability (LD), it was a comfort to them. So maybe the labels we use aren’t such bad things, after all. And once they understand there is a cause for their difficulties in school, they can move forward understanding who they are, what their strengths may be, and that there is more to life than just school.

If we label someone, it is important to make sure they understand what the label actually means. The LD label means that the person has some skills below where they should be despite having good intelligence and instruction. I have written multiple times about how smart many learning disabled people are. If a person is labeled LD, it can mean they have a specific difficulty like reading, and everything else in their life is fine. In fact, often they have extraordinary gifts in areas unrelated to the disability. It is easy to find information about what kinds of difficulties LD students have. It isn’t so easy to find a list of gifts they often have.

Did you know that LD people are often gifted when it comes to 3-D images and objects? For example, many can first visualize and then create incredible sculptures from clay, building blocks, or found objects. When they read something, they visualize the set and characters as if they are real. They can “walk through” the buildings described in the story like they are actually in them.

Another gift many LD people have is in relating to other people. I remember a student I once taught who described to me an interview he had before getting his prestigious job. He said to the person doing the interview, “Let me tell you why you need me for this job. And let me tell you why I can do it better than anyone else you are looking at.” He did get the job and proceeded to design and build several fabulous roller coasters for their company.

Other LD people are “out-of-the-box” thinkers. They think of creative solutions to problems that would never come to most regular thinkers. These people frequently seem like they aren’t really doing much. They may be staring out the window looking like they are daydreaming when they are actually solving an extremely complicated problem no one else has been able to solve.

Do you see why I say students who struggle in school are difficult to understand? I have taught so many who were absolutely miserable in school. But later, after high school and college, they are very happy. No one makes them write research papers anymore! They build roller coasters, design landscapes, sell incredible cupcakes, or become other kinds of entrepreneurs. There truly is so much more to life after school is over.

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Why Is Spelling So Hard for Some Kids?

Have you ever wondered why some people can speak and read well but are terrible at spelling? In order to understand why, you have to take a look at language in general. Not long after a baby is born, he begins to babble by mimicking others around him. Before you know it, he is saying words and then sentences. This is pretty natural, and many experts believe humans might have been speaking to one another for at least 100,000 years. Communicating through oral language is easy for us.

But reading and writing came along much later (about 5000 years ago), and learning to read and spell is more difficult. And, if we examine the difference between reading and spelling, it is easy to see why spelling is much more difficult than reading. There are a limited number of sounds in any language. For example, there are approximately 44 different sounds in the English language with some variations because of different accents. Once a person learns the possible sounds different letters or combinations of letters can make, she can then decode (figure out) what a given word is when reading. If she sees the letter combination /tw/ she thinks, “That ‘w’ can be silent like the ‘w’ in ‘two’ or it can make a sound like it does in ‘twin.’” There are only two possible ways to say the word. It she is trying to read the word “twelve,” it is obvious what the word is since it only makes sense one way. She probably wouldn’t even have to go through this thought process because it is rare that “w” is silent and she would have tried the most common pronunciation first.

However, when spelling a word, she has to figure out which spelling is the correct one to use. There is nothing on the page to help her, and she has to know all the possible ways a given sound can be spelled. Think about the word “delicious.” The /sh/ sound can be spelled 13 different ways! (Is it delitious? Delishus? etc.) This doesn’t even take into account how to spell the rest of the word! Fortunately, if she can get close enough to the correct spelling, a spelling checker can help fix her mistakes. Even that isn’t perfect, though. I often have students who pick the wrong word from the list of choices the spelling checker offers. They might write, “The apple pie was delirious,” which was one of the choices my spelling checker gave me for “delitious.”

This can help to understand why children who are receiving remediation for reading and spelling learn to read more quickly than they learn to spell. There are fewer choices to make when reading than when spelling, and fewer rules to learn for decoding words.

If your child is a poor speller despite working very hard at it, it is reasonable to ask a child’s teacher for accommodations that help. They should at least be allowed to use a computer to produce their written work.

For more about spelling problems, see my earlier blog about accommodating for a spelling disability.

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Helping Your Teen Through the Tough Times

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

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How To Prepare for Semester Exams

Many children will return to school after the holiday and begin preparing for semester exams. Exams that cover a whole semester can be overwhelming for some students, especially if they do not do well on tests that are shorter and cover less material.

Here are some steps to take to prepare for exams. You need to take these steps for each exam you will be taking. This takes a lot of time, so plan to stay home a lot the week before exams.

  • Find your old tests. Important concepts will be on tests you already took. It is unlikely there will be concepts on the exam that you haven’t had before. The questions might be different, but really they are asking for the same information. Therefore, you need to find all of your old review guides and tests. (Put homework assignment and worksheets in a pile together in case you need them, but the most important thing is the old tests.)
  • Compare what you found to what another classmate found. Make sure that you both have the same tests. If not, ask your teacher if it is okay to make a copy of someone’s test or if she will give you another blank copy. It’s best to have one that is already filled out and graded if your teacher will allow you to get a copy of someone else’s test.
  • Find your notes and important handouts. If your notes are incomplete, ask a friend if you can have a copy of theirs to help you study. You need to spend some quality time reading through your notes and handouts. Highlight important concepts and put a question mark or star beside things that are hard for you. Also highlight vocabulary words you learned during the semester. If you made vocabulary charts or study cards for the tests, make sure you still have them. If not, you will need to make them now. Figure out which of the things you highlighted were on the tests you already took. Focus on those concepts when studying for the exam.
  • Set up a schedule for when you plan to study. During your study time, use your study charts or cards to drill. Read through your notes slowly and think about what they mean. If you are sure you know something, do not spend a lot of time practicing it over and over. Focus on what you still do not know. Studying an hour just before bed can be helpful. Some research suggests that your brain keeps working as you sleep! It is also useful to study with a partner who is going to take the exam. That way, you can share ideas with one another and ask each other questions.
  • Look for themes. The final step is to try to figure out if there are themes that occurred throughout the semester. Making a study web can help you to identify them. If there are themes, they are likely to show up as questions on the exam.


If you get anxious when taking exams, use deep breathing to help you calm down. If you prepare well, you should do fine. Remember that it’s hard work that pays off, not just luck.

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What Do Grades Really Mean?

So many parents worry constantly about their child’s grades. I totally understand this concern, but I do worry about how this can affect children who are struggling in school. 

There are many reasons for a child to get poor grades that are not in their control. Unfortunately, low grades are often blamed on the child without concern for how hard he may be working. Children are called “lazy,” “stupid,” “unmotivated,” and even worse. I have spoken to more than one girl who was told, “Just find yourself a husband who can take care of you and you’ll be fine.” 

Philip Schultz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry, was often called stupid in school. He later wrote, “My image of myself as a dummy is neurologically…wired into the core of my being.” Children believe what we tell them. They especially believe what their parents and teachers tell them, and this self-image does not go away even after great success later in life.

There are a number of reasons a child might have poor grades in school. Many of these can be corrected with proper instruction and plenty of practice. In the meantime, be very careful what you say.

Three common reasons for poor grades are:

Learning disabilities. Many smart children have skills much lower than you might expect. These children are not able to succeed in school because of their low skills in reading, writing, math, or even study skills. They can work very hard, but still not succeed. Children can learn how to compensate for their disabilities if given proper instruction. And remember that low skills do not mean low intelligence.

Attention problems. Some children pay attention to everything in the room equally. Others simply cannot focus their attention on their schoolwork. They are typically called “wiggle worms” because they have trouble sitting still. If you ask them to sit still, they will use every ounce of their energy doing that. Unfortunately, they learn much better if they are actively moving and doing hands-on activities. If you are concerned that your child may have an attention deficit, you probably should have her evaluated by your physician.

Executive functioning disorders. If a child cannot seem to get their work done on time, does the wrong thing, forgets to bring what he needs to school, loses track of time, or is generally disorganized, he may have an executive functioning disorder. Executive functioning plays a huge role in school success. There are strategies to help with this, just like there are with other learning issues.

If you are concerned about your child’s grades, talk to her teacher to find out what she thinks is causing the problems. Tell your child that you would like to figure out why her grades are low. The school psychologist is most helpful in determining what is going wrong and what to do to get help. Most important, make sure your child understands that you know she is not a dummy and that you love her regardless of how she does in school.

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How To Talk to Your Children About the Tragedy

The entire nation mourns when tragedy strikes a school like Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The pain must be unbearable for the families and friends of the children and educators who were so mercilessly killed. When a crisis like this happens, each individual must learn to move forward in their own way. We are forever changed, however, and we must establish a “new normal” life as soon as we can. This is true for us and also for our children. As parents, we worry. We want our children to feel safe and happy, yet we feel inadequate because we do not know how to help them when we ourselves are also hurting.

Children take their cues from the trusted adults around them. If they see that you are upset, they will be upset as well. Try to stay calm as you answer their questions. There is no need to tell them everything, especially if they are very young. Focus only on what your child has already heard, and make sure you do not keep the television on where your child hears and sees the story over and over again.

Your children need your assurance that you are there with them and will take care of them. Talk about the policemen, firemen, doctors, and nurses who took care of everyone at the school and how lucky we are to have people like that to help us when we need it. They also need to know that this is an extremely rare occurrence. It is very unlikely that it will happen in your child’s school.

Keep in mind what LeAnna Webber, a school psychologist in Cincinnati says: “This shooting was the work of a very sick individual. It is certainly very scary, and schools are doing everything they can to prevent it from ever happening again.” Webber says to emphasize to children that there are thousands of schools, and the chance of such an event occurring at any one is very low. As well, she adds, “It may make kids feel more secure to ask their teachers about their lockdown procedures and ask if they can practice those again. All schools have crisis plans and teachers are trained and practice what to do in any number of emergency situations. If you think about it, those procedures saved lives in Sandy Hook.”

Children respond differently to events like this. Some seem pretty much normal, and others are frightened, angry, or worried. Children need to know that no matter how they are feeling, it is OK. Even children who do not seem to be affected may actually be feeling emotional. If possible, get your children to tell you how they are feeling inside. Tell them you feel the same way, and assure them that you love them and will be there for them. What children need to know is that their own life isn’t going to change.

It is important to stay physically close to your children until you are sure they are feeling safe. Try to stick to your normal family routine as much as possible. But if your child needs extra support such as sleeping with a light on, reading an extra bedtime story, sitting in your lap, or extra hugs, you should allow it. It is sometimes helpful to involve them in locking the doors before bed and talking about your family’s safety rules.

We all find comfort in different ways. Some children are comforted by writing or drawing. Older kids might want to write a poem in honor of the children who lost their lives or send cards to their families. Younger children could draw a picture to send to the school or the policemen who responded to the tragedy. Some might want to attend a memorial service for these children or a prayer vigil to pray for all of our schools and teachers. Children may want to contribute their allowance to charities that help victims of tragedy. All of these give us a sense that we are helping in the only ways we know how and can provide the emotional comfort we need.

If you find that your child continues to feel angry, afraid, or otherwise emotional longer than you expect they should, seek help from a counselor or psychologist. Events like what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary are traumatic, and some children need more support than what a parent is able to give. A trained professional may be better able to help your child feel safe and secure.

Finally, you also need to take care of yourself. When you have to be strong for your children, it takes a toll on you. You feel pain as you imagine what it would be like to lose your own child. You may also need professional help to deal with this pain. Do not be too proud to seek that help.

For additional reading, see the National Association of School Psychologists handout, Helping Children Cope With Terrorism: Tips for Families and Educators.

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Technology Solutions for Reading and Writing Difficulties

I teach at a school for students who have language learning difficulties. One of our students (I’ll call her Janel) makes excellent use of technology to help her overcome her difficulty with reading and writing for herself. To help her to read her assignments, she often uses digital books that can be read to her with Natural Reader (a free text-to-speech reader for both Mac and PC). Anything that is in digital form can be read with text-to-speech software. When surfing on the web, she can simply copy and paste what she wants to hear into her software. For a fee, the personal version will read directly from a web browser.

Janel also downloads some of her literature books from sites that provide either free audio or digital copies of them. Gutenberg and Manybooks are sites she frequently uses.
Janel also uses the Livescribe Pen to help her take notes in class, complete her homework, make study cards at home, and annotate in her books as she reads. She uses the post-it note paper that can be purchased to use with the pen to annotate in the book. At the end of each chapter, she sticks a post-it size sheet in her book. She then writes one or two words on the page and begins recording with her pen as she orally summarizes the book.

Similarly, anywhere she needs an annotation, she uses a small piece of the specialized paper that comes with the pen, pastes it on the page, and uses the pen to record her voice annotation. To make a study card, she cuts a piece of the paper into a small rectangle and writes the word followed by a question mark. As she writes the question mark, she records the definition of the word. When studying, she reads the word, tries to remember the definition, and then taps the question mark to hear its definition. In this way, she knows whether she said the correct definition.

One of our teachers told me about AudioNote, an app for iPad and Android devices, that works similarly to the Livescribe Pen. It is available at low cost through iTunes and there is a free version for Android. While I have only briefly tried it myself, I can see some powerful possibilities for getting help for students who have trouble either taking notes in class for themselves or trouble getting their thoughts down on paper when doing homework.

I have written on the topic of homework help in the past. For more information about students who struggle with homework, read my earlier blog.

> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Homework 911

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Decoding and Reading Comprehension: Figuring Out Your Child’s Struggle

Many of my students have difficulty understanding what they read. If you notice that your child struggles with reading, there are some ways you can figure out what the problem might be.

Reading is very much like figuring out a code. The letters stand for sounds, sometimes two letters together make one sound, and different kinds of syllables are pronounced differently. The reading code is quite difficult, and without proper instruction, many children never do understand how to decode words. Add to that the number of words in the English language that do not follow the sound-symbol rules, and reading gets even more complicated.

If your child struggles, start by selecting a paragraph in one of her textbooks from school. Ask her to read the paragraph out loud to you. If you notice that she frequently struggles to figure out what a word is, she may have a problem with decoding.

But if your child reads the words accurately but does not understand what the paragraph means, the problem is not with decoding. The problem might be with reading comprehension. Reading comprehension depends on a number of things. If the words are easy to read but he does not know what some of them mean, then he will not comprehend the overall meaning of the paragraph. In this case, a lack of vocabulary is the problem. Parents can help their child with vocabulary development. For ideas, see my earlier blog on how to do this. Some children can read the words fairly well, but they do not know how to read fluently and to phrase the sentences so that they make sense.

Reading well is the key to success in school. If this is a problem for your child, seek help as soon as you possibly can. The first step is to have her tested by a professional such as an educational psychologist. The specialist can recommend how to get her the help she needs. This will likely involve working one-on-one with a tutor who specializes in reading instruction. Reading teachers have a variety of strategies they use to teach decoding, reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and phrasing.

For more information about reading, there are many interesting articles here at SchoolFamily.com.

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Overcoming the Fear of Making an Oral Presentation

Speaking in front of people is frightening for some people. I have faculty members who will gladly teach in front of their students but if I ask them to present something to their peers, they do not want to do it! 

This is the time of year when my students complete a project that culminates in a public presentation of their work. Their audience first is their peers. Next, they present in front of judges and then finally in front of a large group of parents and teachers.

One of my students was particularly worried about the presentations. Together, we came up with a strategy that worked for him. We talked about the importance of public speaking, both in college and later in the workplace. We agreed that he wanted to be able to present his project, that it was important for him now and in the future, and that he was willing to work together toward reaching that goal.

We also discussed that many of the strategies people suggest to overcome fear don’t really work. For example, I have heard my whole life that you should picture people sitting in their underwear. I never understood where that came from, and I question whether it works for anyone. 

To start, we sat down together in a very informal place. (In fact, we sat on the steps out in the hallway.) I asked him questions about his project and allowed him to answer each question. After we did that, I asked him to tell me about it without me asking any questions. Then, he stood up and faced me as he told me about the project again. Finally, he practiced doing the presentation (just to me) using his PowerPoint slideshow. After this practice, he successfully presented in front of the whole class and the large group! He said he was scared half to death, but he did it very well.

The key to this success was taking little steps and building up to being able to speak in front of the group. It will be very interesting to see if he is able to transfer this approach to other presentations later. For now, we are celebrating the success of completing a task he did not think was possible.

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Deep Breathing To Help With Test Anxiety

 

Many students completely stress out when they have a test. They might be totally prepared and know everything on it, yet they are so scared and worried that they become unable to show what they know. There are some strategies that might help. Learning how to breathe deeply is a good place to start.

When a person is stressed, the body produces adrenaline which is the hormone that creates the “fight or flight” response. During this response, breathing is quick and shallow and the body’s oxygen supply is directed to the legs and arms in order to protect oneself from danger. Deep breathing can actually help reduce the level of adrenaline in the body, increase the oxygen level in the brain, and help a person relax.

If your daughter knows the material when studying at home but gets too anxious when taking the test, teach her how to do this deep breathing exercise. She can reduce her anxiety while sitting at her desk about to start the test. No one will even notice.

 

  • First, have her inhale slowly through her nose and hold the oxygen in her lungs for a couple of seconds.
  • Next, she should slowly exhale through pursed lips. The stomach should rise and fall as she breathes.
  • Tell her to repeat this for several minutes until she begins to relax.

 

She needs to practice this at home until it is easy to do and feels natural to her. At home, you can help her practice when you notice she is getting angry or worried about something. Later, on test day, she will know what she needs to do.

Deep breathing will only help her to perform better if she is prepared for the test. If not, the source of her anxiety might be that she knows she is not ready to take it. In that case, she needs to learn how to study. Check out the study skills archive of articles for ideas to help her learn how to prepare for tests. 

> More tips to overcome test anxiety

 

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Problems Copying From the Board

Some children have a hard time copying things from the board. Some are unable to do it at all, while others are just very slow at copying. There are multiple reasons for this difficulty. Regardless of its cause, students need accommodations to overcome this barrier before it causes problems in school. (An accommodation is something that allows the child to perform and succeed despite having a difficulty that prevents her from doing an action by herself.)

If a child cannot focus on the board clearly, this can cause problems copying. School-age children should have their eyes examined every other year unless they already wear glasses or contacts. In that case, the eyes should be reexamined every year. Another possibility is that the child is sitting in a place where there is too much glare on the board. Teachers don’t always look at the board from every location in the room, so don’t rule this out. These vision issues are fairly easy to solve. Glasses or contacts can resolve the focusing issue, and changing angles with the screen or closing the blinds on the windows can remove the glare. 

Hand-eye coordination issues, poor pencil grasp, or muscle weakness in the hand also can cause a child to have trouble copying from the board. Other possibilities relate to poor language skills. If a child has to copy letter by letter because he doesn’t know how to spell well enough, it takes a lot more time for him than for other students. A student with poor working memory may not be able to hold the information in his head long enough to get it down on paper. All of these should be diagnosed by a trained professional who can then make recommendations to address the problem. In the meantime, the child needs an accommodation so that this does not keep him from learning in school.

There are multiple accommodations that could help. One answer is to provide a copy of notes to the student. Another is to make a copy of another student’s notes (one who has legible handwriting and takes good notes). If the teacher is using an interactive white board, she should be able to take a snapshot of the board and provide it to the student digitally. Or a student could take a picture of the board with his smartphone or iPod. Some students can copy something for themselves if what they are copying is close by. This is called “near point copying.” For these students, they can simply copy a nearby student’s notes.

If your child is having trouble copying notes for himself, speak to his teacher to see if she is willing to provide an accommodation to help. If not, I would suggest you go to the school psychologist, counselor, or principal to ask for help.

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Developmental Differences in Thinking Ability

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

Yes - 31.6%
Sometimes - 25.4%
No - 37.4%

Total votes: 4919
The voting for this poll has ended on: June 25, 2016