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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.

Make the Most of Family Meals

Time spent enjoying family meals can pay off in stronger connections. When possible, it is important to sit down together to talk and find out how everyone is. It's also a time when your children learn manners and respectful behavior toward one another.

Families can really benefit when dinnertime is established as a family value. Remember, too, that your children learn the most by watching what you do. Here are some suggestions for making family meals more meaningful.

First, it can be helpful to establish a “no phones” rule for dinner time. Unless there is an emergency, calls can wait until everyone is finished eating. Teens in particular seem to be absorbed by their phones at all times. But mealtime should be an occasion when you ask open-ended questions and discuss what is happening in each person’s life. (See Getting Teens To Open Up  if you need ideas for how to do this.)

Second, practice basic table manners together. I can remember my mother reminding me to chew with my mouth closed, to make sure there is plenty to go around before taking a second roll, or to ask politely for someone to pass what you need rather than reaching over their plate. These fundamental skills are not taught anywhere else, and poor manners can hurt your child socially and, at some point, professionally.

Spending time together like this brings a family closer. Even during adolescence, when teens act like they don’t want to be a part of the family, they really do need you to show how much you care about them. Most of us are so busy there is very little time for this kind of interaction. I encourage you to sit down together to eat a meal at least once each day. Of course, every family has weeks when activities and homework make dining together difficult. On those hectic days, find other ways to connect, like playing a game in the evening or even just sitting together and talking.

 

> Make Family Meals Count

> Recipes for Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinners

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Don't Worry—Your Teen Is Probably Normal

Several times in the last couple of years, parents have asked for a conference with me. I am always happy to meet with parents, because I see myself as a partner with them to help take care of their child. What these parents really wanted to know was whether the things they were seeing happen with their child were normal. Developmental psychology textbooks don’t really answer the specific questions they asked. The books explain that the teen years are when children begin the process of turning from children into adults, but they often fail to tell you what to expect in terms of family dynamics.

Here are some FAQs about adolescents in middle and high school.

Is it normal that my child doesn’t want to spend time with the family? Your child wants to be independent from you. Every chance he gets, he will isolate himself in his bedroom and play video games, watch television, text friends, or do a myriad of other things that don’t include the rest of the family. The truth is, he still needs you desperately. Physically, he looks like an adult, but he is still a child in many ways.

Why does my child argue with just about everything I say?
This is again part of the process of changing from a child into an adult. She wants to make all her decisions for herself. She is old enough to find herself in situations that can be dangerous for her, yet her brain is not fully developed in order to make the best choices. Arguing with you is her way of letting you know she wants you to see her as an adult. You will have fewer arguments if you allow her to make choices when the consequences for those choices is not too great. (See Adolescents Should Solve Most of Their Problems Themselves for some ideas.) You must stay involved, however, and help her to make the right decisions when the consequences could harm her. Raising teens is hard work! 

Is it normal that my child stays up really late and doesn’t want to get up for school?
The normal sleep patterns for teens shifts later into the night. They frequently stay up past midnight and are sleepy in their morning classes at school. This sleep pattern is perfectly normal. You should encourage her to get to bed earlier, but she may not be able to go to sleep right away. There has been discussion about whether school should start later in the day for adolescents. There are, however, a number of reasons for keeping it the way it is. The current schedule more closely mirrors parents’ work hours, and after school activities like sports and music practice would go too late into the evening hours if school started later. 

My child carries everything he owns in his book bag and doesn’t use his locker. He also forgets to do all his homework. Is that normal?
The part of the brain that governs planning ahead and time management does not fully develop until the early or middle twenties. It is very normal that teens find it easiest to take everything with them rather than to figure out what they can leave in their locker and pick up later in the day. Some teens have a very difficult time with this. (See Executive Functioning—How It Affects a Student in School.)

If you wonder whether your son or daughter is behaving in an unusual way, talk to other parents who have children the same age. It is sometimes hard to tell whether they are behaving like teenagers or whether there is really something bothering them. Talk to them every day, ask good questions, and stay involved despite their desire for you to leave them alone. Once they leave home, they will appreciate that you were always there for them! In the meantime, tell them how much you love them and keep trying to include them in all family activities.

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A Simple List System for Managing Time and Assignments

Many of my students have trouble managing their time. They come to school without their homework and especially long term assignments they have known about for a long time. All of them have digital calendars, apps on their phones, and planners provided by the school. Despite these tools, managing their “to do” list is still a problem. I think the problem might be they have too many tools to use, and they don’t use any of them well. They need something easier.

Since I am good at juggling a lot of deadlines and details, I thought students might be able to benefit from my strategy. Here is what I do.

  • In a small journal that goes with me everywhere, I jot down a few words to remind me of each task I need to do. For example, if a student asks me for another copy of our syllabus, I write “Mary-syllabus” in my journal where I keep a running list of everything I need to do. A student in science class can simply write “science.” Later, when doing homework, she will see that she does have science homework to do. (This assumes that she has a syllabus or online source with the details of what is due for science.)
  • When I get a few minutes to go over my list, I do everything I can do quickly right then and check it off the list. If a task will take some time, I enter a deadline when it needs to be completed into my calendar app with a reminder that pops up several days ahead of time.
  • At the end of the day, I spend just a few minutes going over the list to see if there is something important I need to do before stopping for the day. I start a new page for the next day by copying remaining tasks onto that page.


If your child has difficulty managing his time, this simple strategy might work for him. Combine this with an organized notebook system, and he just might be able to get his work turned in on time! It does require diligence to do it every single day, but since it requires less time than other strategies, he may be more willing to give it a try.

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Ease the Transition From Middle to Upper School

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

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


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

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Teach Kids To Be Active Listeners

In Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, Peter Johnston suggests a technique for teachers to use that is meant to help students listen better, become more socially aware, and possibly more empathetic towards other students’ viewpoints.

Johnston describes a situation where he watched students discussing their ideas about a question with a partner. The students were then asked to tell their teacher what their partner thought about the question. In many cases, the children could not say what their partner thought because they were thinking only about what they wanted to say. Their teacher then sent them back to their partner to find out the answer. In this way, students were encouraged to really hear and understand what their peer had to say.

I wonder whether this would work in other situations such as when siblings get into an argument about something. Your daughter often complains to you about what her brother is doing. You could ask, “What does your brother think about that? Why is he doing it?” You could then encourage her to find out from him why he was doing it. They might even have a conversation about it that leads to resolving their differences without parental involvement.

The technique of asking children to truly understand what another person thinks by listening and asking questions can be a powerful tool that leads to better communication, greater empathy, and the ability to listen intently to another person. These social skills are extremely important and lead to success in school and later on the job.

 

> Simple Activities To Improve Your Child's Listening Skills

> Simple Tools for Sharp Listening Skills

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The Fundamentals of School Success

Educators often use terminology that really doesn’t mean a lot to people who are not in the business of teaching children. Terms like “working memory,” “executive functioning,” “attention deficit,” and many others can confuse parents and some teachers not familiar with them. There are a few fundamental strategies, however, that help all children be more successful in school. These guiding principles are helpful and lead to success in school.

  • Praise should be genuine and deserved. If parents and teachers praise children for work that isn’t done well, children feel they do not need to work hard to succeed. This does not have to be at the expense of your child’s self-esteem. Instead of praising, ask him questions about his work. “How did you do this?” “Can you work any more on this to make it even better?” These comments do not hurt feelings, and encourage him to keep working. They also help him to connect his success to hard work.
  • All children benefit from structure and routine. School days should be predictable with homework times, meal times, bath time, and bed time as close to the same every day as possible. Routines reduce the amount of arguing because children know what to expect.
  • Your child should be held accountable for her own actions. Consequences should be reasonable and related to her actions. If she gets up early, makes up her bed, gets ready for school, and helps you with breakfast, she should be praised for her efforts. On the other hand, if she is uncooperative while getting ready for school, her consequence should relate directly to the problem. Perhaps she needs to wake up ten minutes earlier each day, so she will have time to make her bed and help you prepare breakfast.
  • Your child needs to feel his parents love him and are on his side. School days should start with encouraging, positive words from you. This helps to establish a relationship of trust so that when things are not going well, he will feel comfortable talking with you about it. Together you can figure out how to solve the problem.


The beginning of the school year is the best time to establish positive routines that help children get off to a good start. Teaching kids to connect success to their hard work and holding them accountable for their actions will lead to success in school and life. And, as always, make sure to tell your children how glad you are they are a part of your life!

I hope this school year is the best ever. I am so glad to have my students return this week! The building is much too quiet while they are away for summer.

 

> 3 Keys to School Success

> The Keys to Success in School

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Should Kids Get an Allowance?

Parents often ask me about whether they should give their teens an allowance. Some feel that children should do their chores because it’s the right thing to do, and they should not be paid for it. Others think giving them an allowance is a good way to teach how to save money. As with many topics, there is a middle ground—where children can learn to contribute to family life without being paid for it and also learn about the value of money.

It might be a good idea to have a list of chores that everyone in the family is responsible for doing without expecting money. This could include making their own bed, putting their dirty clothes in the laundry room, and putting away the things that belong to them. Other chores could be offered as ways to earn money (vacuuming the den, dusting, washing windows, or working in the yard). You could use an app like Allowance Manager  to keep up with how much each child has earned. Some chores can be available to your children if they want to do them, and others can be required chores. You and your children can decide who does what to make it fair to everyone in the family.

There are a few key points to think about when making the decision about whether to pay your children for working around the house. First, consider that earning an allowance is one way to teach them about saving money. Kids should not be handed money for every game or electronic gadget they want. They should have to work for it.  A second thing to consider is that children should not be paid unless they do their chores well. They need to know that the quality of their work matters. Finally, make sure to set up a schedule of expectations for what needs to be done and when it should be completed. You will need to be clear when payday is and be consistent about giving them the pay they earned.

In my 30 years of teaching adolescents, I have noticed that the students who have the best work ethic at school are the ones whose parents required them to help out at home. Having a strong work ethic is connected to success in school and later in life.

You might also enjoy reading Summer Chores Teach Kids Responsibility  and Should Parents Pay their Children for Good Grades?

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Homework Help for the New School Year

Recently, I wrote about some back-to-school organization tips to help students who are disorganized or have problems managing their time. A daily routine that includes time for getting ready for the next day is very helpful. Most students benefit from structure and planning ahead. Another important part of the day that proves to be difficult for many students (and consequently for their families) is homework time.

There is not one perfect time of day to do homework that works for every student. Your child may need to have some exercise time when he first gets home from school. If he has ADHD, he exerts a great deal of emotional and physical energy trying to remain seated and quiet in school. She, especially, needs to have very active time when she first gets home from school.

Perhaps right after dinner is a good time for your child to settle in to do homework. (If possible, homework time should be the same every day.) He needs a distraction-free, well-equipped place to work. His phone, television, and video games should be put in a place where he will not be tempted by them. Multitasking between homework and phone (or anything else) is a poor use of time. Human brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time. So if he is texting a friend in the middle of doing homework, he switches his thinking back and forth. Every time he switches, he loses his previous line of thought. He has to go back and reread the question or rethink what he was writing or doing. The end result of the multitasking is often poorly done work or only halfway completed assignments.

Your child should have a comfortable place to work with all the normal school supplies handy. She may work well at the dinner table where you can keep an eye on her. School supplies can be stored in a plastic shoebox and stored nearby. Many teachers post homework assignments online, so if she does not know what she needs to do, encourage her to look online. If she uses her computer to complete homework, make sure she has paper and ink for the printer. The most frequent reason my students give for not turning in homework is “my printer isn’t working.” The second most frequent excuse is, “I left it at home.” So, she needs to have a safe place to put her homework in her binders to make sure it gets to the teacher on time.

It is easy for me to say your child needs to have a set time each day that is devoted to homework completion. In reality, it can be very difficult. Many families have more than one child, and each has after school activities that pull the family in many directions. Homework completion, however, remains a major concern for many students. If this is true for your child, establishing a routine that includes when to do homework, and having a well-stocked, distraction-free place to work can be very helpful. If homework is a major challenge, ask to meet with your child’s teachers or the school counselor to try to figure out what is causing the problems.

 

> 7 Strategies for Successful Homework Routines

> Printable Daily Homework Tracker

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Establishing Back-to-School Routines for Kids With ADHD

Adolescents with ADHD or working memory problems often have trouble getting ready for school in the morning. They often forget to take important things to school like their book bag, homework, and clothes for gym. Mornings are chaotic and create stress for both parents and children. Morning and evening routines at home can help, and the beginning of the school year is a great time to establish those routines.

The goal is to have your child ready to leave for school with everything he needs when he gets there. The first step is to determine what he will need for school. This might be best accomplished the night before as part of his bedtime routine. Until he is able to do this for himself, you will need to help. Ask him about each of his classes to determine if there is homework or a project due. Discuss extracurricular activities such as sports to make sure he has completed everything he needs or has the appropriate supplies or equipment ready. Organize everything and place it beside the door or in the car, if appropriate. He should go to bed at the same time each night knowing he is ready for the next day.

Your child needs to wake up to get ready for school at the same time every day. The morning routine should stay the same to the extent possible, and she should be ready to leave for school with some time to spare. Since the evening routine included getting everything ready to take to school, the morning routine can focus on getting ready and eating a nutritious breakfast. Plans for lunch need to be settled before she leaves, as well.

Routines like this lead to forming habits that can last a lifetime. For children with attention or working memory problems, good habits are extremely important. They need to do these things by themselves without even thinking about it, but it will take a lot of help from you to get to that point. Each child is unique and the time it will take to change these evening and morning routines into habit will vary. You can begin by giving oral instructions (one at a time) each day and then later move to checklists that your child uses on his own. Much later, after a great deal of practice, he may be able to manage without help. Keep in mind that there are plenty of adults who rely on checklists, and there is nothing wrong with it!

Establishing routines that form into habits can lead to success in school. The morning and evening routines help students get to school on time with everything they need. I will write soon about homework completion, which is another important part of every teen’s day during the school year.

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Organization Tips for Back-to-School Time

Some of the schools near me start in two weeks! It is hard to believe the summer is almost over. If your child is disorganized and has trouble keeping up with everything and managing his time, you might be able to help. While shopping for school supplies, keep in mind that a strong organizational system is important. Tabbed dividers, labeled tabs, zippered pockets, and time management apps may help. Consider the following.

  • Students in middle and upper school are often told by each individual teacher how to organize for their class. These kids are trying to manage five or six different “systems,” and it is very hard for them to keep everything straight. You can help by looking for ways to create consistency across subjects. For example, each binder can have tabs or divider pages to mark specific places to put today’s homework, graded work that needs to be saved (including tests and quizzes), and a place to write notes. An earlier blog, A Notebook System That Aids With Organization, offers more information about coming up with a notebook system. If your child receives accommodations, this system can be included in his IEP or 504 Plan.
  • When I ask my students about how they use their locker, they frequently answer that they don’t use it at all. My students prefer to carry everything they need in their book bag. If your disorganized child does this, she may need assistance keeping the bag organized with necessary supplies handy for class. Depending on how much of a problem this is for her, you might need to set aside a daily time to reorganize the book bag. Her binders for every class must fit into the bag. She needs to have a specific place for her pencils, calculator, and whatever she uses every day. Some small zippered bags or plastic boxes can help with this.
  • Your child needs to know how to use an electronic calendar to help manage his time. This does not have to cost money if he already has a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. He needs to record which classes will meet each day and whether there are special assignments due soon. This is another area where many disorganized kids need help. He can learn to use Google Calendar or try an app such as those described in A Free App To Help With Time Management. If a tablet or computer are not available, your child will need a planner where he can write upcoming assignments and events.


Keep time management and organization in mind as you and your child shop for school. Purchasing the right organizational supplies is important and can lead to success, but using these tools does not come naturally to many students. It takes some time to learn how to use them and a considerable amount of time before they become habit. For truly disorganized kids, a daily routine of going through the book bag, each binder, and checking the planner/calendar will likely be necessary. Parents should gradually turn over this responsibility to their child, but in the beginning will need to be very involved.

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Using Praise Effectively Helps Self-Esteem

Parents are rightly concerned about the self-esteem of their teens. It is important to feel confident and self-assured. Equally important, however, is the need to learn to accept and benefit from constructive criticism. You can help your child develop this skill without damaging her self-esteem.

First of all, it is important to use praise effectively. When you praise your adolescent, it should be when he does something praiseworthy. Teens actually lose confidence when praised for poor quality performance. For example, if your son skips baseball practice the day before an important game and consequently plays poorly, he should not be praised for it. If you say, “Sorry you lost. You did your best,” he will think he must be a really terrible player. He knows he did not play his best, but you just told him he did.

Second, your child needs to connect his success to how hard he works. If he really feels he is a terrible player, then he has no motivation to work to improve; but if he connects his poor performance to the fact that he didn’t practice enough, he will want to work harder. Rather than telling him he did his best, ask him, “How do you think you played today?” Follow that with a discussion about how he can improve next time. In this way, you are teaching your child to accept constructive criticism. If he attends all practices and works hard, his skills will improve, and he will play better.

It is important to be able to accept suggestions for improvement. Obviously, it helps in school when teachers ask for better work. It might not be so obvious that it also leads to higher self-esteem. The secret is in the effective use of praise (only when deserved) and helping children connect their success to their hard work.

 

> How To Help Struggling Students Build Self-Esteem

> 6 Tips To Help Kids Develop a Positive Body Image

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Encourage Good Grammar on Social Media

Many teens spend a great deal of time on social sites networking with friends. One concern I have about that relates to language skills. It is acceptable on these sites to use improper grammar and spelling, and we often blame autocorrect features on our digital devices rather than taking responsibility for posting poorly constructed sentences and misspelled words. Perhaps that can be something we as parents require of our children—to write correctly on social networking sites.

One of the most frequent errors is the misuse of the homonyms there, their, and they’re. Here is how I help my students remember which one to use.

  • Apostrophes in the middle of words often mean there is something left out. They’re is a shortened way to write two words—they are. Other examples are “don’t” for “do not” and “shouldn’t” for “should not.”
  • Their contains the word “heir,” which is a person. The word their always refers to a group of people. “Shoppers normally park their cars next to the grocery store where they are shopping.”
  • There contains the word “here,” which is a place. (This refers to the core meaning of the word “there.”) I can be here. I can be there. “The car is parked over there next to the grocery store” uses the correct homonym. There are other uses of the word, “there,” (such as the first word of this sentence), but this memory aid will often help make the decision which one to use. This rule of thumb especially helps when used in combination with the first two “rules.”


Parents should always be monitoring what their children are posting online. When you see your child use grammar incorrectly such as using the wrong homonym, you can use it as a teaching moment. Perhaps that will encourage him to practice writing correctly. He should not blame his smartphone (or other device) for the errors he posts. Everything posted online should be proofread. The extra time spent proofing also gives her time to think about whether what she is about to post is appropriate and thoughtful of others, but I will save that for another blog topic!

> Impulsive Students Need Guidance When Online
> Talk With Your Child About the Internet

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Foster Your Child's Emotional Health

One of the signs of emotional health is being aware of emotions and understanding what they mean. Teens need to be aware of the emotions they are feeling as well as the emotions of others. Unfortunately, many in our society discourage their children from expressing their emotions in healthy ways. I believe this is especially true of boys. Boys are told not to cry because “crying is for girls.” These children grow up thinking they should not have strong emotions or that they are weak if they do. Everyone has emotions, and children need to understand that. They need to recognize and name the emotions they are feeling.

If your son does not talk about his emotions (“I am so frustrated…”), you can help. The first step is for him to recognize that he is feeling an emotion and be able to tell what emotion it is. You can help by providing possibilities—for example, you could say, “You must be really proud [angry, sad, grateful, frustrated] right now.” The next step is to recognize that others feel emotions, too. You might say, “I know you are angry with Terry, but he was really hurt by what you said to him.” Finally, he needs to learn appropriate responses to his emotions. “It is OK to be angry and take that anger out on a pillow. It is not OK to take it out on your friends.”

Middle school boys who are having difficulty expressing their emotions can often write about them. I once asked a particularly rowdy group of 8th grade boys to write a letter to me about why they were misbehaving. I asked them to tell me why they did not like class, why they did not want to participate, and what I could do to make the class better for them. I was amazed to find out that they did like the class, and their behavior was related to a wide range of emotions they were feeling about things going on outside of school. One student wrote, “My grandfather is dying and he is the one person in my life who really understands me.” Several wrote, “I am sorry I have been so bad. I really do like this class.” This was an enlightening experience for me. Once the boys wrote their letters, class went much more smoothly. They expressed their emotions in writing which gave me the information and empathy I needed to support them.

Having emotional awareness is important for developing healthy relationships. Parents can talk with their teens about the emotions they feel and how others might be feeling. Writing about the emotions a teen feels can also lead to better emotional understanding as well as knowing what is happening in your child’s life.

For more information about the importance of understanding emotions and how it affects school, read How Emotional Intelligence Is Linked To School Success.

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Help Your Kids Cope With Stress in Healthy Ways

Tim Elmore, an expert on growing leadership in today’s youth, recently wrote, “…students who are emotionally fragile often struggle with addictive behavior…[a]ddictions [that] often begin as coping mechanisms. In fact, most of us would admit to a small addiction to help us get through our day: coffee, chocolate, television, Coke Zero, alcohol, cigarettes…” [From Addictions: One Reason Not to Take the Easy Road.]  Dr. Elmore is not speaking primarily about drugs or alcohol addiction. He is speaking of addictive behavior. His concern is that we are not teaching our youth how to cope with life’s stressors in healthy ways, so they take actions that quickly relieve the stress. We are allowing them to rely on unhealthy habits or on parents to rescue them. Parents respond so that their children never have to suffer even the slightest discomfort or embarrassment.

Recently, I learned of a student who in the middle of class sent a text message to her mother. Shortly after, someone from the office brought her the textbook she had left in her locker. Her mother had called the school office to ask someone to go get the book and take it to her. I think this is wrong on several levels: First, the student broke the rules by text messaging during class. Second, her mother rescued her by calling the school. Third, the office personnel allowed it to happen. The student learned she does not have to be responsible for bringing her book to class, because her mother will rescue her from suffering the consequences of her actions. Mom has become her coping mechanism—her “addiction.”

Here are three important strategies for developing stronger adolescents who can handle daily struggles in healthy ways.

  • You should expect your child to do a fair share of the chores at home. At the very least, he should keep his own room clean and help with cleaning the shared family spaces. There are other chores he can do, and he should have firm responsibilities at home that he does without fail.
  • Your child should resolve her own conflicts with her friends. Most of the time, teens can do this if they are encouraged to talk with one another. If parents intervene in every squabble, children will never learn to resolve their own differences.
  • Allow your child to suffer the natural consequences of his actions. If he forgets to do his homework, he should be honest with his teacher and admit that he forgot. He can ask for another chance (if it hasn’t happened too many times before), and maybe the teacher will allow him to turn it in late. If the teacher does not, you should not try to rescue him.


When you require your children to do chores at home, resolve their own conflicts, and suffer the consequences of their own actions, you are teaching responsibility. Your children learn healthy coping mechanisms rather than blaming others when things go wrong (“Mom didn’t make coffee this morning.” or “Dad wouldn’t bring it to me.”). They become healthy and emotionally strong—ready to take on life’s daily struggles.

 

> Kids, Stress, and How Parents Can Help

> Summer Chores Teach Kids Responsibility

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Executive Functioning Practice During the Summer

The ability to plan, initiate, and carry out daily activities takes place in the part of the brain just behind the forehead. We call this ability executive functioning. It involves the ability to be flexible, to control one’s behavior, to hold and use information in working memory, and to be self-aware. Executive functioning tends to improve with time and does not fully develop until age 25. Adolescents need to have practice that develops these abilities. Allowing your children to plan family events and vacations provides great practice.

It is probably wise to start with something simple like planning the evening meal. You can provide guidelines, such as how to make it a healthy meal that doesn’t cost too much, but then allow your child to decide what to have, check the groceries in stock, decide what needs to be purchased, and go with you to the store to buy the groceries. He can cook, serve, and clean up after the meal. This is great experience for him. Not only is he getting excellent practice using his executive functioning ability, but he is also learning important life skills. In the beginning, he might need considerable help doing this. With practice, he should be able to manage this pretty much on his own.

Another idea might be to allow your child to plan a family outing. She could research options in the area, pick somewhere interesting, find out how much it costs to go, figure out a time when the family is available, suggest when to go, and decide whether to ask a friend to go along. This could be a simple outing to the movies, a trip to a nearby town for the day, or a weekend adventure for the family.

Many parents are uncomfortable allowing children to make important decisions. Parents plan every minute of their children’s time to make sure there is no time to get in trouble. It is good to be involved and to know what your children are doing. It is important, however, for kids to have some unplanned time. This is especially true in the summer months when they are not busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Kids can learn to manage their own time, plan events, and entertain themselves. If children are allowed to make more decisions, they will learn how to make decisions that have good consequences. They will develop the executive functioning ability they need to be successful in school and life.

 

> Executive Functioning: How It Affects a Student in School

> Homework Binder: A Strategy That Helps With Executive Function

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Encourage Students To Practice Handwriting

I started to write my blog this week about why there are so many students in middle and upper school who cannot write legibly. I was going to place the blame on lack of instruction, too little practice, or poor pencil grip. Lack of instruction is a problem since most elementary schools do not devote the same amount of time teaching handwriting as they once did. Too little practice is also a problem, since there are fewer times when we need to write by hand these days. Even if a student could once write legibly, they forget how when they don’t use it enough. It turns out though that poor pencil grip is probably not the cause of poor handwriting!

I read some of the latest research on pencil grip and found that most experts agree that how a person holds his pencil is generally not the cause of illegible handwriting. If a student in middle or upper school is comfortable when writing but cannot write legibly, the focus of instruction should be on letter formation. Once students know the proper form for each letter (both lower and upper case) and can reproduce it without much thought, the focus then should be on increasing speed.

On the other hand, if a student is uncomfortable when writing by hand, the pencil grip should be explored. There are four basic grips that have been shown by research to be efficient and produce legible handwriting. Most people choose one of these four grips. Even if they choose something more unusual, it is OK as long as they can write legibly and their hand does not hurt as they write.

During summer is a great time to practice handwriting skills. It takes a lot of practice to get to an automatic level with handwriting, but it is worth the effort. There is research to suggest that people remember more of what they write by hand as opposed to what they type on a computer. I believe there is a strong case for encouraging most students to write notes by hand. For this to be possible, they need to be able to write legibly and quickly. The time spent practicing this summer might pay off with better grades in classes where students take notes by hand.

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Help Students Set Reasonable Goals

Children need to learn how to set reasonable goals for themselves. In the last few weeks, I have worked with several students who were disappointed in themselves and truly upset about how their final grades turned out. Their reactions ranged from tears, to anger, to blaming someone else. After each of us met to discuss their concerns, the bottom line turned out to be that they had set unrealistic expectations for themselves.

In one case, the student wanted to get the highest grades in every subject even though she knew that she was gifted in math and science and not as much so in language arts. Regardless, she was determined that she would also get excellent grades in English. She struggled to interpret the symbolism in the literature, and she placed the blame for that on the teacher and the other students for being too noisy in class. When she got an average grade on the tests and exam, she was angry. When I offered to sit down with her and her English teacher to discuss strategies for next year, she confessed, “I’m not really mad at her, I’m just mad that I didn’t get an A. I have a terrible time understanding the literature, and I really don’t care about it.”

Another student decided that he wanted to move into all honors level classes the following year in the hopes of raising his grade point average. In order to qualify for the higher-level classes, he needed to maintain above average grades in each class. While he was able to do that in some classes, he was not able to do it in all. He was extremely disappointed in himself and felt like he had let others down.

These children had both set themselves up by setting unrealistic goals for themselves. Fortunately, we were able together to see that they had actually accomplished a lot this year, and what they were seeing as huge failures, were not really that bad. In both cases, their grades were really good overall.

It is important to help students set goals that can be reasonably accomplished and to clearly determine what steps they need to take in order to reach their goals. Help them determine what they need to do in order to reach their potential. For example, perhaps they need to more carefully complete each homework assignment, make appointments with teachers, or ask more questions in class. By taking these steps, they may be able to raise their grades and have something to be proud of. Trying to raise a grade up a letter grade is much more reasonable than trying to get all A’s. When their goals are reasonable, the end of the school year will be something to celebrate.

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10 Things New Graduates Should Know

The class of 2014 has now graduated. I always have mixed emotions when students leave after several years of working together. I remember all the struggles along the way, and how they made it through those struggles to graduation day. Most are elated to be leaving and look forward to a new life free from the boundaries of school. It is hard for parents and teachers to let them go, but it is time.

Here is some of what I hope my students learned from their parents, other teachers, and me as we worked together.

  • It is not always the smartest people who are the most successful in life; it is the ones who work the hardest.
  • Always tell the truth, even when you really mess up, because it takes years to build trust and only seconds to lose it.
  • Be passionate about something, for it will be the source of joy in your life.
  • You don’t have to be good at everything, but don’t sell yourself short just because something is hard for you. Some things take years to truly understand.
  • All life is interconnected. It is up to you to take care of the environment.
  • Every person has potential.
  • Listen to the viewpoint of those who disagree with you, for there is truth in both sides of every issue.
  • Friends are important. You need them, and they need you.
  • Be who you are, not who someone else wants you to be. (In other words, it’s OK to say no to a friend.)
  • Say thank you to those who helped you get where you are. These people are still there for you even after high school.


To the class of 2014—I wish you well. Call your parents often; let your teachers know what you are doing and how you are. You will be missed.

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In a Digital World, Many Students Prefer Printed Books

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

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

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

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

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

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In Summer Months, Practice School Skills as a Family

In just a few weeks, school will close for the summer! It is important that students have some time for fun and relaxation while off. There are some skills, however, that students need to practice even through the summer months. No matter what subject you think about, there are fundamental facts that must be memorized. Math facts and vocabulary can be reviewed during the summer months without kids feeling like they are back in school.

Students should learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers through 12 to an automatic level. In other words, your child should be able to answer “What is eight times seven?” without having to think about it. Practicing math facts can be made into fun games. For some ideas for how, read Math Games To Keep Skills Sharp in Summer.

If your child is taking a foreign language such as Spanish, she will benefit from continued practice throughout the summer. Depending on the level of skill she has, watching television shows or movies in the language is one way to practice. She needs to practice speaking the language, as well, so spending some time conversing with others who speak the language is helpful.

Practicing vocabulary is another great summer activity that pays off later in school. Once again, this can become a fun game the whole family participates in. For some ideas, read How To Help Your Child Improve His or Her Vocabulary. Reading is also important to help to improve vocabulary. For the most part, allow your child to read books that match his interests so he will enjoy reading and want to read more.

Most children need to be encouraged to spend less time on their electronic devices, but a fun educational app can actually be helpful when it comes to practicing basic skills. Commonsense Media is an organization that reviews educational apps and provides an independent voice on what is available for education. There are many fun apps for practicing math, Spanish, and vocabulary, as well as a myriad of other skills you feel your child should practice.

Even though summertime is supposed to be downtime, your child should not lose or forget basic skills. The trick is for you to be enthusiastic about learning and to provide fun opportunities that involve the whole family.

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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