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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.

Using Minecraft as a Learning Tool

Years ago I took a course called Using Legos To Teach Physics. We built all kinds of machines using basic Lego pieces and electric motors. We learned some simple programming so that we could direct our machines to do work. For example, one challenge was to build an electric wheelchair and a ramp for the wheelchair to navigate. I entered the class skeptical about the value of the class; but by the end I was convinced that this was a valid teaching tool that students could use to learn physics and engineering concepts. My confidence grew along with my skills to meet the challenges presented. Legos are now used in robotics competitions across the nation and everyone agrees that students learn a tremendous amount building with them. The game of Minecraft is similar to Legos in concept, and teachers are using it in their classrooms to teach virtually every subject.

Minecraft has been described as “virtual Legos” by experts who recognize the value of teaching with it. Like Legos, Minecraft is not free; however, millions of adolescents are playing it and connecting with their friends online to play together. Since Minecraft is a virtual game, the blocks can represent a lot more than real Lego blocks. In Minecraft, blocks represent things such as water, coal, stone, trees, and even food like carrots and potatoes. Players use blocks to build other objects they might need such as a bed to sleep in or a pickaxe to mine blocks. You can play in a survival mode or simply build whatever you can imagine.

Science Friday, a Public Radio show, recently featured Minecraft on one of its podcasts (go to Science Friday and search for Minecraft). A mother called in to report that after visiting a ruins site, her sons and his cousins were able to explain how the ancient people must have lived, why the ruins were arranged the way they were, where they probably got the stone, and where their water probably came from. The boys continued their discussion for weeks after the visit. She believed they immediately grasped these concepts because of their experience with Minecraft. If you are thinking about purchasing a video game for your child, you might want to consider Minecraft. It is likely that she will be using it in school in her science or social studies classes!

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Special Fonts for People With Dyslexia

Recently, a friend of mine posted on social media that she has a terrible time reading menus. Several of her friends agreed for a variety of reasons. One reason mentioned is that she is dyslexic and has problems with sequential processing. The organization of menus is often non-sequential with interfering information near the essential information. In addition, the fonts used are difficult to read. A second reason is simply related to the paper and size of font. Small fonts on shiny paper are difficult to read for everyone in dim lighting.

Menus, as well as many other documents, would be easier for struggling readers if they were created using the newest fonts designed especially for people with dyslexia. One such font is called Dyslexie and is available to individuals for free (schools and businesses pay a fee). A second choice is called Opendyslexic and is available to anyone for free. What makes these fonts better for struggling readers?

First of all, each letter in the font has a distinct shape. In most fonts, the letters “p, q, d, and b” are shaped exactly the same, but are in different orientations. In many fonts, lowercase “L” and uppercase “I” look exactly the same. In the specialized fonts, each of these letters has a distinct shape and if reversed or inverted, they would no longer be the same letter. Second, the bottom of each letter is slightly thicker which tends to cause the letter to “stay put” on the line. Dyslexic readers often report that letters seem to move around on the page. In fact, when I asked a dyslexic what she thought of the Dyslexie font, the first thing she mentioned is that she loved how the bottom of each letter is “weighted.” Third, these fonts have longer stems on certain letters, again making it less likely to reverse or flip a letter that is shaped similarly. Finally, the spacing between words is larger than typically found in most fonts, and the beginnings of sentences are automatically bolded. This makes it easier to see the beginning and end of each word; and, the beginning of each sentence is clear.

There is some scientific research and much anecdotal evidence that supports the use of these fonts for dyslexic readers. Many report that they read faster and more accurately. It may be time for restaurants to consider producing menus for those who need a little assistance with reading. My friend reports that when she can’t read, she feels anxiety and shame.

If your child feels anxious about reading, he might find that the font helps him read better. He can convert digital content for school into one of the new fonts. It is as simple as selecting the content and changing the font. If online, he can copy and paste into a word processor before changing the font. Perhaps, he will be able to read more independently and feel more confident. It doesn’t cost anything to download one of these fonts and give it a try!

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Why School Dress Codes Matter

Many families are getting ready to go back to school. It is important to give some thought to appropriate clothing to wear. Most schools have a dress code; and, most adolescents don’t like it! Schools have dress codes for a reason, and it helps to understand why. Here are some ideas for talking with your child if she does not agree with the school’s code. Understanding why dressing appropriately is important can make back-to-school shopping easier!

First and foremost, ask her, “Why do you go to school?” Generally, kids will say two reasons in this order—“to see my friends” and “to get an education.” The social aspects of school are extremely important, which is why attire is so important to teens. Your conversation can center on the primary reason for school—to prepare her for her future, whether that is college or career. School is her job right now, and most places have dress codes for their employees.

Second, talk about the importance of first impressions. It can be the deciding factor of who is chosen for a job or elected to an office. I like to find pictures online of people dressed up for a party, dressed for working in the yard, dressed for a casual get-together with friends, and dressed for the swimming pool. Ask your son why the people are wearing what they are wearing. Ask him what people would think if he showed up wearing his swimming suit at school or the clothes he wears while mowing the lawn. Ask him to pick out a successful businessman and why he chose the one he did. The bottom line is that how you look makes an impression on others and that impression can affect success.

Last of all, make the point that the way we dress affects how we behave. Talk about what happens in school on “dress-up” days. We have a spirit week when students choose themes each day such as dressing like your favorite super hero or wearing school colors. Students enjoy each theme and love that the dress code is relaxed to allow hats, flip-flops, and ragged jeans. Teachers report that it is difficult to get students to take their learning seriously when Iron Man and Batgirl are sitting in class or one student is wearing a bright green hat with blinking lights on it. On normal days, when students are dressed for school, students settle down to business much more quickly.

Dress codes do matter. It is a part of our adult life as much as it is life in school. Getting an education is your child’s job right now. Dressing appropriately sends the signal to others, both peers and teachers, that your son or daughter is there to learn as much as possible and that they take their jobs seriously. Take time to examine the school’s dress code and to have this conversation before shopping for school clothes.

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The Power of Positive Attention for Teens

Human beings need the attention of others. We need to interact with one another and to feel accepted and loved. When teens misbehave, they often do so to get the attention of their peers or the adults in their lives. Years ago, an acquaintance talked for 20 minutes about how awful her daughter was without ever saying anything good about her. I asked her, “Do you ever just put your arms around her and tell her you love her?” She said that she didn’t do that because her daughter didn’t deserve it. To me, it partially explained her daughter's behavior. She needed to feel loved by her mother and to have her mother’s unconditional love. Since she couldn’t get that, she at least got her attention by misbehaving. There are times when parents must discipline their children, but children must know that their parents love them despite their poor behavior. How can parents let their kids know how much they love them even when they need to change their behavior?

First of all, parents and teens need to talk to one another often. Ask your son his opinion about important decisions you need to make or what is going on in his life. Ask him probing questions that require more than a one-word answer. Tell him how important he is to you and how much you care about him. If talking to each other like this is normal, then talking about his misbehavior won’t be so stressful. He will already know you love him, because you have told him so many times before.

Second, be aware that your daughter hears what you say about her to your friends. If you need to discipline her about something, do what you need to do and move forward without continuing to talk about it. Tell others about the positive things she is doing and how proud you are of her. When she gets positive attention from you and hears you telling your friends about the good things she does, she will know that you forgave her and that you still love her. This will encourage her to behave well because she gets lots of attention for it.

Finally, learn about ways to manage your son’s behavior effectively. There are many excellent books about how to change behavior without using humiliation or other extreme measures. My favorite is Joanne Nordling’s Taking Charge: Caring Discipline That Works at Home and at School. Nordling outlines a behavior management system based on consequences tied to the behavior you need to change. She also recommends that you carefully choose which behaviors get attention and which do not. Very deliberately, you effectively shape your son’s behavior in positive ways.

Teens need the attention of their parents. If they don’t get enough, they might do something wrong to get negative attention; negative attention is better than no attention. To change this dynamic and strengthen your relationship with your child, talk often, use effective disciplinary techniques, and choose your words carefully when discussing family business with others. Most important of all—make sure she knows how much you love her.

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Use Summer for Some College Planning

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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Internet Safety Tips for Teens and Parents

Many experts warn children about the dangers of the Internet. We teach our children to never give their name, address, or phone number to anyone online. We watch them while online to make sure they do not visit inappropriate websites. As children become teens, we tend to back off and trust them to be careful while online. There are great risks for teens, however, and parents need to continue to watch diligently what their adolescents are doing online. The risks do change, but are just as dangerous as when our children were younger.

Teens often know as much or more than their parents do about their electronic devices. Step number one for protecting your teen is to learn what the risks are and what control you have over them. Here are some of the risks I often see affecting the kids I teach.

Lack of sleep. If adolescents take their tablet or smartphone to bed with them, they are likely communicating with their friends throughout the night. The culture now is to answer every tweet, posting, or message the second it goes online. Lack of sleep leads to poor performance in school, drowsiness while driving, and even to depression. It might not be easy to get him to agree, but your teen should turn the devices over to you before bed, and you should keep them with you overnight.

Online bullying. Bullying used to happen during the school day or before and after school. Now, it can go on 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. The effects of bullying are deep and devastating. It is important to monitor your teens’ online communications with other kids, and keep an ongoing dialogue about their activity there. If possible, connect with them on their social networks so that you see the comments as they are posted. Parents of all the children involved need to work together in positive ways to resolve the issues.

Becoming addicted to online video games. When your child needs more and more of something and it affects his ability to function normally, then he is addicted. We tend to think of drugs and alcohol addictions, but I have known teens and adults who are addicted to video games. For kids in school, their grades suffer, they are sleepy in school, and they frequently get into trouble because they are using their devices inappropriately in class. One defense for parents is to cut off the supply of funding for the games. To be really good at most of these games, the player must spend money to buy the advantage to win. If there is no money available, the game is not as much fun. Additionally, keeping the electronics away from them at night is important. If your child does not respond to these restrictions, he may need to see a psychologist who specializes in adolescent addiction.

Parenting teens is hard work. It is important to maintain diligent efforts to monitor your teen’s activities online in order to prevent serious consequences. Your child can perform poorly in school, have serious health consequences, or become addicted to online games. If you do not feel that you have adequate skills to know how to protect your child, sign up for a class or form an alliance with other parents of teens. Contact your child’s school to see if they are offering support, as well. Kids are healthier and happier when their parents work together with other parents and with the school.

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Try Quizlet for Summertime Math Vocabulary Review

Every subject students take in school has specific facts and vocabulary associated with it. In history, students must learn people’s names, events that happened, and important dates. In literature, there are character names to learn, symbols, and literary terms. We tend to think that math is different, but it is not. If the math terminology is automatic, then understanding the problems will be easier. This is especially true if doing word problems. Summertime is a great time to review. Coming back to school in the fall with last year’s math vocabulary secure in memory and a beginning level of next year’s vocabulary already learned will likely make math much easier. Quizlet is great tool for reviewing math vocabulary. Quizlet offers review in the form of flash cards, games, or tests.

There are two approaches that will help next year in math—reviewing last year’s math vocabulary and previewing next year’s. If your child just finished taking Algebra I and will be taking geometry next year, he should spend time reviewing Algebra I vocabulary. He can go to Quizlet and search for it. Many teachers and students have posted their sets of study cards, and almost any subject is already available. He should start by using the flash cards to make sure he still knows the vocabulary. After he feels comfortable, he can play Scatter and Race which make the learning more fun.

After spending time reviewing last year’s math course, your child can begin working on next year’s vocabulary. She can search for “geometry vocabulary” to find a set of terms to begin learning. It might be beneficial to search for terms from previous years. If she is in 7th grade, she could look for 5th grade geometry vocabulary. It is important that this review is not frustrating, and that she has enough success to enjoy playing the games. Any review of geometry terms will make math easier next year.

Quizlet is useful for reviewing almost any subject. The frequently used element names and symbols will be useful in almost every science course. Reviewing literary terms, states and capitals, and historical events can help. It is, however, most helpful in math. Many students struggle because they do not remember all the mathematics terms. It is hard to find the additive inverse of a negative number if you don’t remember what an additive inverse is! It is important to have some recreation and relaxation time in the summer, but just a few minutes a day reviewing math vocabulary can set your child up for greater success next year in math.

If your child needs to drill her math facts as well as vocabulary, you should read about some math games that help drill facts while having fun.

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Keys To Helping Your Child Be Successful in School—and in Life

In a few short days, I will watch another class of seniors walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. It is always an emotional time, because I have worked with many of these students for several years and seen them grow from insecure middle school students into self-confident seniors. What can we do to make that journey smooth and productive?

First of all, parents should stress the importance of being on time to school and attending every day unless really sick. If you allow your child to stay home every time she feels tired or doesn’t want to take a test, you are setting up a pattern of negative behavior that will impact her college and career success. If she feels anxious about school, it is important to find out what is making her anxious and to help her face her fears rather than run from them. If allowed to avoid it, she will become more anxious the next time.

Second, parents, teachers, and students need to communicate frequently with each other. If parents do not let teachers know when there are problems, then teachers can’t do anything to help. Conversely, if teachers don’t let parents know, then the parents can’t do their part to help. Typically, experienced teachers have seen similar problems and have suggestions for what needs to be done in a given situation; and parents are usually ready to provide support at home when they know it is needed. Adolescents should be contributing to the discussion, as well, so that they can understand the issues and do their part to correct them.

Finally, both parents and teachers must hold students accountable for their actions. Of all the educational issues I have seen that harm children, this is one of the worst. When your son chooses not to do his homework, he should suffer the consequence of having a lower grade for it. This is true even if he had a great reason for not doing it. For example, if he is on the football team and had a late practice after school, he might be very tired and choose not to do his work. The consequence for that choice is a lowered grade. He might have been able to change that situation if he had planned ahead and asked his teacher for an extension. But just choosing not to do it is not the best decision. Parents should not try to intervene to lessen the consequence for the decision. In this way, children learn to make the best choice and to be responsible for their actions.

The path from adolescence to adulthood can be rocky. Parents can help their children traverse it by encouraging good attendance, communicating when there are questions or concerns, and holding their children responsible for their actions. When it is your turn to watch your child walk across the stage at graduation, you will watch a young adult who is ready for life after high school—one who is independent and can be successful in college or career.

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Tips for Connecting With Your Kids During the Summer

Summertime! Kids everywhere are living in anticipation of release from school for the summer. What happens then? That is an important question to ask; parents everywhere should consider what is best for their children. When planning your child’s summer, I suggest you consider the following.

Encourage your children to read! Reading skills, like any other skills, get better with practice. Besides that, reading good books is a great escape from reality. For ideas of what to encourage your children to read, take a look at 50 Books Every Child Should Read. Some of these books are written for younger children (The Lorax and The Giving Tree, for example) and would be easy reads for your teen. They have important lessons to learn, however, and spending a little time reading them to younger siblings is a valuable experience. For great family time, read the same books together and spend time over dinner discussing the books. My daughter likes to read a book together with her children and then watch the movie of the book. The questions and discussion that follows is natural and fun for her and the kids.

Get outside and enjoy the great outdoors! Kids do not spend enough time outside playing. Think about the games you played with other children and teach them to your own kids. For younger kids, Four Square, King of the Hill, Kick the Can, and Capture the Flag are fun and provide enjoyable exercise. Participating in summer league sports or attending a sports camp can help build skills and keep in shape over the summer months, as well. For some ideas for outdoor games, see 30 Outdoor Games for Simple Outdoor Play.

Limit screen time. It is important that teens do not spend all their free time online. It is true that there are great educational games and apps, but teens needs to develop their fine motor skills that are not developed when typing, using a mouse, or tapping a screen. Besides that, educational games are not often chosen by teens. They are more likely to play online games with friends that can consume all their attention. There is something to be said for becoming an expert in one activity, but teens’ brains are in a state of neuron development that needs multiple kinds of stimulation—not like what they receive playing the same games for hours.

Take some short trips in the car. Some of the best conversations take place when traveling by car. Parents rarely get that much time with their children. Engage them in deep, thoughtful discussions with open-ended questions. Perhaps you can start by asking “What was the most important lesson you learned in the last year of school? Why was that important?” Then next, “What goals are you going to set for next year? How will that help you?”

Relish the time you have with your child this summer. Spend time traveling, playing games, and reading together. Talk, talk, talk! Families can get so busy they forget to slow down and visit with each other. Adolescents like to pretend they do not need their parents any more. Truthfully, though, they are making decisions that can affect the rest of their lives. They need you now more than ever; the extra time you have together this summer is important time for you to provide the guidance they need.

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Help Students Have a Strong Finish to the Year

There are only a few weeks left of this school year. Students everywhere are looking forward to summer, and it’s hard to stay focused on school. It is important, however, to finish strong for more than just making this year a success. Success in school and life is linked to the ability to persevere even when things get tough. Educators refer to this characteristic as “grit”—and you can even take this “12-item Grit Scale” quiz to find out how much of it you have!

Parents can encourage their children to do their best as they finish this school year. Here are some strategies you might try.

  • Talk with your son about his long-term goals. Ask him, “What do you want to be when you get out of school? What will you need in order to be successful in that?” Nearly every career requires at least a high school diploma. Even college graduates have difficulty finding jobs in today’s market.
  • Encourage your daughter to attend school every day and to be on time. Talk to her about the importance of attendance and punctuality in the workforce. Most promotions are based at least in part on it, and those who have poor attendance records are often the first to lose their jobs when a workforce must be cut.
  • Plan an end-of-year celebration for the weekend after school lets out for summer. Allow the kids to help plan it. Explain that the celebration is for a successful school year with grades that reflect hard work and diligent effort through to the end. I am not a proponent of rewards linked to good grades only, but I am a huge proponent of rewarding perseverance and finishing to the best of one’s ability.


Parents, stay strong and encourage your children to finish this school year attending regularly, completing all work the best they can, and studying for tests and exams. Then celebrate their hard work early in the summer. Remember that grit and determination are the keys to success in school and life.

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Help Your Child Deal With Worrying News Stories

Parents need to be mindful of how their children are feeling when the news is full of frightening events. Stories about violent protests, natural disasters, and political turmoil are prominent on every news source. Adolescents are at an emotional point in their development, and parents need to be aware of the effects these stories have on their teens. It is very important to talk to your children about these events and others they worry about. Here are some tips for how you might approach these discussions.

  • There are many people who protest in peaceful ways. The media often does not focus on these protests; perhaps you can spend some time with your child showing him news stories that are focusing on the peaceful, more effective protests. Also, read about Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 amid the racial tensions of the 1960s.
  • When natural disasters occur, adolescents need to learn that their actions can help alleviate the suffering of others. One person might not make a huge dent, but many working together can. You can encourage your kids to lead or participate in an effort that will directly provide aid to the people they are hearing about in the news. This helps change your child’s emotional response to the news from fear into compassion for others.
  • People can disagree about politics (or anything else) and still like one another. Unfortunately, that message is not the one portrayed by candidates running for office. With my own children, I tried to point out that there are risks and benefits for every choice we make. During political campaigns I encouraged them to read each candidate’s platform before deciding who they support. In this way, they can have an informed discussion with their friends who support a different candidate. This same approach can work when discussing any news story because the chances are great that you are not hearing the full truth. One must seek the other side of each story before deciding what to believe.


Adolescents in particular are affected by events they hear on the news or read about on the Internet. Parents can help alleviate their fears by talking about them with their children, helping seek the full story in each case, and providing some guidance for positive ways to make a difference in the world. I believe that most teens are good people. With parental help, teens can become analytical thinkers who are equipped to make a real difference in the world.

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Tricks To Help Kids Manage Electronic Distractions in the Classroom

Many schools are going “one-to-one,” which means every student has a laptop or tablet on which to work. While there are tremendous advantages of having access to electronic devices in school, there are some potential problems, as well. Students have access to electronic textbooks and instant information, and they have less to carry around with them in their backpacks. They also have an almost irresistible distraction sitting right in front of them on their desk. Many students cannot control the urge to browse the web, play games either alone or with friends, watch videos, or visit social networking sites when they should be working. Teachers try to monitor what their students are doing, but truthfully, it is not possible to teach a lesson and at the same time keep track of what every student is doing on his computer. The responsibility lies with each student to stay focused on their schoolwork.

Here are some tricks that might help your child stay focused in class.

  • When the computer is not being actively used for the lesson, he can partially close it or turn it so that the screen is not visible while he is focusing on the teacher. This keeps him from watching what is happening on the screen, and it also sends the message to the teacher and other students that he is listening. Teachers call this “half mast,” or “forty-five” (meaning the screen is at a 45-degree angle to the table top). The advantage for laptop users is that this keeps them from being distracted but does not shut down the computer, so it is ready to use as soon as the teacher asks for it. Tablets boot almost instantly, so he could just as easily turn it off to keep from being distracted by it.
  • Talk to your child’s friends to let them know that during class she does not want to receive messages or play games. This is difficult for some teens because it is hard to stand up to peers. She could say something like, “I feel frustrated when you send me messages in class because I have a hard enough time keeping up with algebra without being distracted. I need you to wait until after class to socialize. Please don’t do that any more.” Chances are her friend will benefit from this stance as much as she will! If you allow her to practice saying this to you at home, it will be easier for her to say to her friends.
  • Many online games require players to be logged in at all times or they lose status. These games are generally free at first, but once you get into the game it costs money to do well. This is very tempting for students to stay logged on their game during the school day. If your son is involved with one of these games, you may need to intervene. Be aware that he can also play these games on his smartphone, so if you decide to uninstall the game, you will need to check the phone, too. Splitting his brain power between schoolwork and an online game will result in lower grades in school.


One-on-one programs are relatively new on the scene in schools. If your child is participating in one, help her understand her responsibility during the school day is to do her best school work. She will need to minimize distractions from the screen, her friends who want to socialize online, and playing computer games when she should be learning. The discipline she will learn will help her in other areas of her life and prepare her for college and the workplace.

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Strategies To Help Your Child Pay Attention in Class

Paying attention in class is a challenge for many children. This is especially true late in the day when students have been sitting in class all day long and are ready for a break. It also relates to each student’s interest in the subject matter. Most students will describe themselves as a “math-science person” or perhaps “an artist,” and it can be difficult to focus in some classes more than others. For children who are diagnosed with attention issues such as ADHD, paying attention at any time is a challenge. There are strategies these children can learn, however, and they need to realize they should not use their diagnosis as an excuse for poor behavior.

Here are some strategies your child can manage for himself.

  • Sit close to the teacher. Sitting in the first row near the teacher helps him in several ways. First of all, there is less to distract him from the task at hand. Second, the teacher’s voice will be louder than other sounds in the room. Third, it will be easier to get his teacher’s attention if he does not know what he is supposed to be doing. If his teacher has a seating chart and assigns seats, your child can talk to her privately and ask for a seat near the front of the room.
  • Learn to watch other students. Your child may realize that she doesn’t know what to do next because she was not focused on her teacher’s directions. When she feels lost, she should look at what her neighbor is doing. Is he getting his computer out? Is he doing a worksheet? Is he turning in his homework? Chances are pretty good that doing the same thing is the right thing to do.
  • Wiggle quietly and constantly. It is a good idea to carry a stress ball to class. When he feels the need to be active, he can fiddle with it quietly under the desk where no one notices it. It is possible to wiggle your feet discreetly, as well. The trick with both of these is to make sure the fidgeting is not disruptive to others.
  • Ask the teacher for help. Your child can talk privately with her teacher to ask him to give her a signal when she is off task. The signal can be as simple as a quick tap on the desktop or making eye contact. Teachers appreciate a student who is proactive and willing to work to be successful.


Children with attention issues can learn to manage them better. Sitting in the right place, learning to watch others, wiggling without disturbing others, and partnering with the teacher can all help. If your child has a diagnosis of ADHD, find out whether she qualifies for an IEP or 504 Plan which outlines what classroom accommodations should be put in place. At the very least, meet with your child’s teacher and suggest ways he can help your child. You may want to read Are You ADHD Friendly? which suggests ways teachers can help.

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Creative Minds Need Time To Think

Creative minds need time to think. It is during “down time” that our brains can come up with novel ideas or search for answers to “what if….?” or “how can we solve….?” kinds of questions. If we fill our children’s lives with too much to do and allow them to fill the rest of it with electronics, their creativity and ability to come up with novel solutions to problems can suffer.

When I interview new students, one of the questions I ask them is, “If you had genuinely free time, what would you do with it?” Interestingly enough, I often have to explain what I mean by “genuinely free time.” They interpret a study hall, sports practice, or time outside of school as being free. In my opinion, the students who answer that they like to read are the ones who seem to do best in school. I also like to hear, “I go outside to ride my bike (play basketball, go running),” too, because these kids are getting the exercise they need to keep themselves healthy. The ones who say they like to play a lot of video games concern me a bit, because they might need help from me to succeed in school. Kids who spend a lot of time with their electronics might not have time for creativity because they are absorbed in something that takes up all their thinking time.

What can you do as a parent to ensure that your children have time for creative thinking?

  • Talk to your children. Involve your child when you are trying to solve a problem, especially if it relates to him. For example, if he is creating a family problem by sleeping too late in the morning, sit down as a family to talk it over and to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
  • Limit time spent with electronics. I am not advocating taking video games away from your child; just limit the amount of time he can play them the best you can.
  • Allow your child to select one or two extracurricular activities at a time, rather than booking every minute of her spare time with things to do. If she has to go to sports practice every day after school and then work until midnight to get her homework done, there is little time left for creative thought.


The question to ask yourself as a parent is whether or not your children have down time every day. Do they have time to come up with ideas for what to do? If you fill up their time for them or allow them to get too absorbed in the digital world, they do not experience completely free, creative thoughts and games. Imagination is important in our children’s lives.

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The Many Benefits of Summer Camps

Spending time away from home at a summer camp usually results in memories that last a lifetime. Children make new friends, learn new skills, and have loads of fun. The time away gives them a chance to be independent from parents and practice making their own decisions in a safe environment that fosters their growth. Children can excel at camp doing activities they love. This is so important, especially for those who struggle in school. Choosing a camp can be difficult because there are so many. I recommend that you involve your child in making the decision about where to go; and, you should make sure to select a camp that has an excellent reputation. Asking friends where their children have gone is a good place to start. Your school’s counselor is also a great source of information about summer programs for youth.

Many camps focus on building a skill such as athletic or academic skills. Swimming, soccer, basketball, or other sports camps are great for children who want to learn a new sport or improve skills. Coaching and practice in the summer can give them a better chance of making the school’s team later. Children who are interested in science or math may want to go to a technology or engineering camp. Some colleges offer these camps which provide the added bonus of experience living on a college campus. Foreign language camps immerse children in a language and culture they have been studying, and budding writers can attend a creative writing camp.

If you have a child with special needs, consider allowing them to attend a camp that specializes in helping him. It is important to allow your child to have as much independence as is possible, and a camp with trained counselors can be a great experience.

Children who will benefit from additional discipline may benefit from attending a military academy camp. At military camp, your daughter will learn about leadership and responsibility. At a Scout Camp or a wilderness camp, your son will learn about survival in the outdoors and will experience life without the internet or a smartphone for entertainment.

Churches offer camps where children can become more spiritually aware. These camps often provide opportunities for community service and children move from focusing on themselves to focusing on others.

Now is the time to select a summer camp for your child. Attending camp gives your child the opportunity to build skills, learn responsibility, and have an exciting adventure away from home. What they learn interacting with other children and their coaches and counselors will last a lifetime.

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Use Diigo for Organizing Online Research

Students are asked to do lots of research, and much of it takes place on the Internet. One of the most difficult parts of Internet research is gathering enough of it to support a thesis and then keeping up with where the research came from in order to cite it properly in the final product. I have students do article summaries in class, and they often do not get finished by the end of the period. They need to be able to find the same article again and remember exactly how far they were with their summary. A social bookmarking tool like Diigo helps with this and makes research on the web more productive.

Diigo is a bookmarking, research, and knowledge-sharing tool that works best with the Chrome browser. Diigo allows you to bookmark, tag, annotate, and highlight on any webpage. When your child is doing research, he can tag all the pages he finds with the same tag, which can easily be found when he searches for it later. When he later wants to find the same page, he clicks the Diigo icon within his browser to find the site again. The page that opens still has his annotations and highlights. Even if the website is actually no longer online, the page he annotated is archived and available to him. 
Diigo is fast becoming my favorite productivity tool for online work. Best of all—it’s free! To use Diigo, you first set up an account at Diigo and then install the extension in your browser. You can also install Diigo on your smartphone. The sites you bookmark are available across platforms—from laptop, tablet, to smartphone. This video shows how Diigo works.

Make online research more productive by using Diigo. It is a simple to use, free social bookmarking tool that is helpful for any type of research, not just academic. I save favorite recipes and articles I want to read later on Diigo. It saves so much time when you need to find a site again that you visited before.

> 6 Helpful Apps and Tools for Note-Taking and Organization

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Help Your Child With a Learning Challenge Adapt to Change

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

Several things may help these kids.

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


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

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

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

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

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Parents, Does a Legible Signature Matter?

Normally, I write blogs to offer advice to parents. This time, I am writing to ask your opinion. Recently, I received a number of documents signed by my students. I had not asked them to also print their name below their signature, and this turned out to be a huge mistake. I could not identify who had signed each document, because their signatures (except for one) were completely illegible. This led me to do some research on the current legal advice about signatures.

Court cases related to petitions have ruled that the signatures on them were invalid because they were not legible. When these cases were appealed to higher courts, though, the higher courts always ruled that a person’s signature does not need to be legible to be valid. Of course, for petitions and other election-related signatures, this might be problematic. A person must be able to prove who they are, and that the scribble on the page belongs to them. Technically, by law, a person’s signature can be totally illegible, misspelled, a single letter, or pretty much whatever a person chooses it to be. It does need to be consistent, though—the signature has to be recognizable as belonging to the person.

According to Medicare rules, a person’s signature needs to be legible. If you continue reading their rules, however, there are ways to attest that an illegible signature belongs to you. Some claim that physicians purposely write illegibly to prevent someone from copying their signature to obtain prescriptions illegally. The doctors actually want the pharmacy to call them to confirm their signature.

Here is my question. Do you think it matters? Do I need to teach my students to write their signature so I can read it? Do you think my students have illegible signatures because they want to “make a statement” with their signature? Or is this just a part of a greater issue—they cannot write anything legibly? (I rarely see their handwriting, because I require that everything be word processed.) Should we still be teaching cursive handwriting in school? Tell me what you think!

For an interesting discussion on the history of signatures and how significant (or insignificant) they are today, read The Great American Signature Fades Away.


> A Case for Teaching Handwriting in the Digital Age

> The Future of Handwriting: Only Time Will Tell

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The Benefits of Student Internships

Students from the school where I teach are off this week to do internships. They are allowed to choose where they want to go, and we have students in several states (and a few out of the country). The students try to find a placement that relates to a career interest they have. We have students working in law offices, government agencies, research facilities, markets, lawn care businesses, veterinarian clinics, nonprofit organizations, and a host of other businesses. This program is one of the most rewarding and beneficial activities we do.

It isn’t easy running an internship program during the school year. Most of the frustrations occur before the internships begin. Students procrastinate in finding a place to intern, and then find it is nearly impossible to get in where they want to work. Students who want to work in hospitals or doctor’s offices often need a physical checkup, a tuberculosis test, and to attend an orientation before being allowed to work. This can take weeks to arrange, which means students need to plan ahead and get their internship set up early enough. Our students are asked to set up their internships themselves rather than relying on their parents to do it for them. This is difficult for them, but it is a good experience that prepares them for college and the workplace. Finding an interesting place that will allow them to intern can also be difficult. Many organizations and businesses accept college students for internships but not high school students. Most of them want the intern to work longer than a week which is not possible for us.

Despite these frustrations, the benefits of doing an internship are unbelievable. When students write about their experiences, they say things like, “I now know for sure that this is what I want to do for a living.” Equally important, they may tell me they know that they do not want to do it! I have heard, “I never worked that hard in my life! Now I know that when my father gives me spending money, he worked really hard for that. I appreciate it so much more.” One student said, “I understand more about food production—from the farmer all the way to the store.” Another, “I just cannot sit that long in front of a computer. I thought I would be up doing active things.” I heard, “I didn’t know that a workplace can be a fun place to be. Everyone had a great sense of humor, and they enjoyed being there!”

These are lessons that cannot be taught in the classroom. Organizing and keeping up with an internship program is a huge job—but, it is definitely worth it for the experiences the students have. If your child’s school does not have a program like this, consider an internship during the summer months when your child is out of school. The lessons your child will learn will last a lifetime.

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Help Keep Your Kids Safe Online

Teens spend a lot of time on social networks. We have all heard of Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook; but have you also heard of Whisper, Vine, and Yik Yak? It is difficult to keep up in the digital world when it is changing daily and our children are purposefully trying to find networks parents do not know about. It can seem daunting and scary. For this reason, it is more important than ever to keep informed and teach your children how to stay safe online.

According to the experts on social media and teens, the major concerns remain the same as always. First of all, there is a very real chance that teens will use the sites to bully others. It is so easy to “say” something online when it is not so obvious how much the words hurt another person. I personally have witnessed anxiety and depression that relates to online aggression. An additional concern is that kids are exposed to images, videos, and vulgar language on most of these sites. A quick search on a site will reveal how likely it is to find inappropriate content. A third concern is that adolescents measure their self-worth by how many of their friends and friends of friends “like” what they post. Their posts become more and more outrageous to get the attention of others. Additionally, people tend to post the good things that happen to them, which gives the impression they have a perfect life. When your child experiences normal failures and rough spots in life, she may become depressed that her life isn’t like everyone else’s. Finally, privacy remains a concern. If your son posts personal information online, predators can more easily find him. Organizations like Commonsense Media can help. Their article on 15 sites and apps that teens often use is helpful and presents the pros and cons of the sites.

Children need to learn how to protect themselves and others when online. It is not possible to watch what your child does at all times. Firewalls and parental control software at school and home provide a level of protection; but, they are far from perfect. Parents need to stress to their children that their online safety depends on them making good decisions. Personal information they give online is not necessarily private, even when they think they are only telling their friends. Pictures and videos they post now will be online forever. Colleges and prospective employers routinely search a person’s online presence when vetting a potential student or employee. How a person behaves online also affects their relationships with peers when in person. There can be unintended consequences to something posted even when there was no intent to hurt others. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual leader, once said, “Before you speak, think—Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?” I tell kids that everything they post online needs to pass this test. You can protect your child best by becoming an informed parent and teaching your child about online safety. 
There are many organizations that provide cyber safety information for parents and students. Some of my favorites are the FBI, Commonsense Media, and Netsmartz. Pick one of these sites or a similar one to inform yourself. Your child needs your help to stay safe when online.

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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