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Someone sent me a link to an article called How To Get Students To Stop Using Their Cellphones in Class. I was particularly interested in it because kids have a hard time putting their phones away and ignoring them. I was hoping for some strategies to share with those who really need to be paying attention in class rather than being distracted by their phones. Unfortunately, what stood out the most in the article was a statement from Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  According to Rosen, “In experiments, [he] has shown that students' heart rate and other vital signs spike when they hear their phones ring and can't answer them. He says that putting the phones in sight, but out of reach, even when turned off, will only increase that anxiety and the distraction that comes with it.” This worried me, and made me wonder if students really are addicted to their cell phones. Up to this point, I had dismissed that thought as somewhat alarmist.

WebMD lists the signs of drug addiction. Some of these signs are eerily like what I see in my students (and, yes—me, too). This list is only part of the longer list on WebMD. I chose the ones that seem to relate to possible cell phone addiction.

  • You need more and more of the substance (in this case cell phone use) to get the same effect.
  • You feel strange when not using it.
  • You cannot stop yourself from using it.
  • You have a hard time setting limits on its use.
  • You’ve lost interest in things you used to like to do.
  • You drive or do other things you should not be doing while using it.
  • You have trouble getting along with others.
  • You need more and more of the substance (in this case cell phone use) to get the same effect.

It is easy to see how cell phone use relates to each of these signs. Perhaps as parents and teachers we need to begin thinking of ways to help our children take charge of their phones rather than allowing the phones to run their lives. Personally, I have started purposely leaving my phone in the house when I am working outside and limiting how much I stay on it. When at work, I only check it once an hour rather than every few minutes like I used to do. I must admit, it was hard at first, but it is much easier now that I have been doing it for a while. Read through this list of symptoms and think about your child. Is it possible he is addicted? He may need to be encouraged to change his behavior. I believe it is worth taking action to improve!

In many schools, every student has a laptop or tablet computer on their desk. As a teacher, I have mixed emotions about that! I love that my students have vast quantities of information at their fingertips, and that they can share documents with one another so easily. They can do group projects even when they are not in the same room or involve students from anywhere in the world. The same qualities, however, can be a distraction and keep them from learning what they are supposed to. Students can be surfing the Web looking for information unrelated to class. They may be chatting with friends or shopping instead of working. They may be playing games. Even the best of teachers cannot keep up with what every student is doing in class on their tablet or laptop.

Students need strategies for managing the distraction at their fingertips. It is ultimately their own decision whether to pay attention to the teacher or to their electronic device. Talk with your child about her responsibility for managing her device in class. Websites are designed to distract—ads appear targeted to their interest along with a myriad of other colorful, flashy pictures. It can be hard to focus attention where it belongs. Here are some ideas.

  • Partially lower the screen when the teacher is talking. This removes the distracting screen from sight and allows your child to focus better. This is important, too, when classmates are presenting their work to the class. I have seen students with their computer open working (or playing) while other students are presenting projects in class. This is rude and sends a message that they are not interested in learning from their peers.
  • Keep only the software open you are using in class. Some students keep multiple things running all the time, and the temptation to return to that chat is just too much to overcome.
  • Save social networking and online chatting for after school. Most schools try to block social networks from students, but some students find a way around the firewall. (Most students carry a cell phone with them to school and use it for social networking.) In my classroom, this is the biggest issue. Multitasking (doing more than one cognitive task at the same time) is never effective. At best, students will be slower and less productive. At worst, students do not learn at all.
  • Consider whether the learning task is best done without the computer at all. Some activities do not require a computer. Take the teacher’s lead if she suggests that you don’t need your computer. Leave it safely in your back pack and focus all your attention on learning without it in class.

Computers are fantastic learning tools. When used properly in the classroom, they enhance the learning environment and engage students actively. It is up to your son to use his computer appropriately in class. If he knows he is distracted in class by his laptop, he might consider leaving it tucked away unless he really needs it. When it is out, strategies like lowering the screen, keeping the correct software running, and avoiding socializing online can help.

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

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

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

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

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

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Websites are cluttered with multiple windows and articles as well as advertisements. The extra information on each page can make it difficult to read what you really want to read. This is especially true for students who are distractible or have attention deficits. “Readability” is a free app that makes reading so much easier. It removes the clutter from the screen, enlarges the font, and focuses on the one article you select to read. It is very easy to install and works through Google Chrome as an add-on or an app on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device.

To get Readability for Google Chrome, open Chrome and go to this download page. Select “Install Now,” wait a few seconds, and you are ready to go. An icon appears on the menu bar in the upper right corner that looks like a red sofa. When you find an article you want to read, click the icon and select from the menu—“Read Now,” “Read Later,” or “Send to Kindle.” If you select “Read Now,” the add-on will clean up the screen (this takes a few seconds) and open the article all by itself. There is nothing to distract the reader

To get the Readability app, follow the appropriate links found on Readability’s frequently asked questions page. To use it, open the app, click the add icon (a plus sign), and copy and paste the URL where the article you want to read is found. You then have the option to “Read Now,” or “Read Later.”

When I evaluate reading material or textbooks for my students, I always pay attention to the amount of clutter on each page. Reading comprehension can be affected by a poorly designed page. Websites can be very difficult for many students because there is so much that they need to ignore. The Readability add-on can help these students in school to be able to focus on what is important. Check it out. It’s free and easy to use!


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In a recent blog I cautioned parents to make sure their teens are not overbooked. I often see students in my office upset and worried; frequently, they cannot tell me what it is they are anxious about. They often want to go home, even though they are not really sick. When I later examine their schedule and consider the extracurricular activities they are involved in, I wonder if they are feeling the results of stress from trying to do too many things. Stress is necessary, for without it we will not be alert to the world around us and push ourselves to achieve. Too much stress, though, is not healthy. Fortunately, our body tells us when it has had too much stress.

A 2013 survey of teens and adults done by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that teens today are feeling higher levels of stress than their parents. It also revealed that teens do not realize that being under too much stress is unhealthy for them. Stress can cause headaches and upset stomachs. It can cause you to stay awake when you should be sleeping at night. It can elevate blood pressure and even cause chest pain. It can also exacerbate the symptoms of other diseases such as arthritis and asthma. It can lead to serious feelings of anxiety and depression. (For more information about the physical symptoms of too much stress, read The Effects of Stress on Your Body at WebMD.)

There are some steps to take that can help relieve the stress. Of course, examining the schedule is the first step. It is possible that taking away one or two activities during the school year can be enough to make life more manageable. Teens also need to do something fun and get some exercise every day. The APA says, “School is important, but it’s not everything. When you plan your week, schedule time to get schoolwork done, but also schedule time to have fun. When it’s time to enjoy yourself, try not to worry about school or homework. Focus on having fun.” And, finally, teens need to get enough sleep at night. Everyone is different, but most doctors recommend that teens sleep eight or nine hours every night. There are times when there just is no way to get enough sleep, but that should not be a routine event.

The amount of stress teenagers are under and the resulting anxiety is a major concern in schools everywhere. Parents should not ignore the signs of stress in their children, and they should take steps to alleviate the cause, if possible. Teens tend to feel invincible, so they will not likely worry about how they are feeling and connect it to being under so much pressure. Adolescents need to learn strategies to manage their stress such as exercise, having fun, and getting enough sleep. If you are concerned about your son or daughter, talk to your pediatrician about whether the symptoms they are experiencing could be caused by stress.

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Students everywhere will be taking the PSATs and SATs. The PSAT, which occurs in the fall, is a preparatory test for the SAT. The SAT (or another test—the ACT) is required by most colleges as part of the application process. There are some important changes this year on the PSAT and SAT that have implications for how to prepare to take them. The changes are in effect now on the new PSAT for 8th and 9th graders as well as the PSAT that 10th and 11th graders take, and begin in the spring on the SAT.

Two very positive changes affect the scores students get. On the old tests, it was not advantageous to guess at answers if you really did not know the answer. A wrong answer was penalized, so if you missed it you would lose points from the ones you got correct. Now, an incorrect answer doesn’t hurt you. You simply do not get the point for that question. Students should take a stab at every question, even if they do not know the answer. In addition, the multiple choice questions have four choices now instead of five! That means there is a greater chance of guessing correctly.

The math part of the PSAT and SAT tests changed considerably. There are a few trigonometry questions that were not asked on the old PSAT and SAT and fewer geometry questions than before. The biggest change, however, is that there are two parts of the math section. You are allowed to use a calculator in one, and you cannot use a calculator in the other. This change—not being allowed to use a calculator—may affect some students more than others.

Our upper-level math teachers frequently report to me that their students do not remember all of the basic math facts. If your child frequently uses a calculator in algebra or another higher level math class, find out whether he is relying on it for simple facts (like 8 x 9, or 56/8). If so, he will have a lot of trouble on the PSAT or SAT when he is not allowed to use a calculator. There are many apps available for drilling math facts. He should spend 10 or 15 minutes every day drilling until they are automatic. It will help him in math class as well as when taking these tests.

To learn more specific information about the PSATs and SATs, go to the ETS website. There are practice tests available there and tips for how to prepare for the tests. It is a good idea to also check out the ACT. Most colleges will accept either test, and students may submit their best score. The tests are very different, and some do better on one over the other. A final thought—students may take these tests more than once. The first time can be a learning experience to prepare for the next time!

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Parents often push their children to take honors and AP level classes because they want them to be challenged and have a better chance to get into a competitive college. Additionally, they want them involved in extra-curricular activities so they have little free time to get into mischief. For some kids, I agree this is appropriate. For all kids, though, it is important to take a look at their overall schedule to make sure it is reasonable. Students in middle and high school need to have some “down time” in their life, and scheduling too many difficult classes and extra-curricular activities is not healthy for them. How do you know if your child is overscheduled?

If your daughter routinely stays up past midnight to complete her homework, she may be trying to do too much. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get from eight to ten hours of sleep each night. I frequently ask my students how much sleep they get, and most report they only get five or six hours on school nights. They get home from sports or band practice, eat dinner, start their homework, and do not get finished until very late. There are many negative effects of not getting enough sleep, some of which relate to poor performance in school.

Frequently staying home from school is another sign that your child may be overbooked. The stress your son feels from not having any fun time and not getting enough rest, often results in exhaustion and illness. Then, missing school adds to the stress because he has so much work to do to catch up after being out.

Overbooked teens often become anxious. Your daughter may worry about just about everything—pleasing her parents, doing well in school, not letting her teammates down, not having enough friends. She may ask to drop a class from her schedule, which might not be a bad idea. She may need guidance in deciding what she should drop, however. (She may not be thinking logically while anxious.) If your daughter feels anxious about school and life, it is time to take a look at her overall schedule. Consider allowing her to switch some of her classes from honors to regular level or perhaps dropping something from her schedule.

Taking too many upper-level classes and participating in too many extracurricular activities is risky for teenagers. Examine whether your child is getting enough sleep at night and attending school regularly. Note whether he feels anxious a lot. Make sure there is time for him to enjoy being with friends and family, attend social events, and have some time when he does not have to do anything at all. He needs to have some fun to stay healthy and happy.

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

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

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

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

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The school where I work has a lovely ceremony each year when all students and teachers sign the Honor Code. Many teachers ask students to “pledge” their work, signifying that the work is their own. We teach students to cite their sources when they borrow the ideas of others. To sign a pledge that says—“I shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate others who do”—seems cut and dried. In reality, it is complex. Interpreting individual cases can be difficult. There are times when parents should help their children figure out what is the right thing to do in a given situation.

Your son may work with another student on homework. Teachers encourage students to help one another when they are having trouble figuring out how to answer a question. In most cases, this is fine. The difficult part is deciding how much working with a friend is OK, and at what point it is no longer your child’s work. There are some teachers who do not want students working together at all. These teachers feel that homework is the way to know which students have mastered the concepts. I would suggest that your son ask his teachers what their expectations are for homework. If there is confusion, he should err on the side of caution—he should do it alone.

Another difficult area is when your daughter is writing a research paper. Changing one or two words in a paragraph from one of her sources does not make the work hers. Even changing whole sentences and paragraphs is not enough. She must give proper credit to the person whose ideas she is sharing. This is extremely hard for students to understand, and if your daughter makes a mistake she could be accused of plagiarizing, even though she feels she wrote it herself. It is probably a good idea to help her decide whether an idea needs to be cited, especially on the first few papers she writes. It is always better to over-cite than to not give credit when you should!

There are times when students cheat and they know it. This usually stems from feeling desperate for one reason or another. Perhaps they are over-scheduled and simply did not have time to do an assignment. It is possible they do not know how to do the work and won’t ask for help (perhaps they’re embarrassed to ask). Maybe they are about to lose a privilege at home if their grades drop. For whatever reason, these cases are clearer and normally result in punishment. Even so, parents can help identify the reasons their child felt the need to cheat. It may be possible to adjust their schedule or arrange for tutoring support, if needed.

All parents want their children to grow up to be honorable. The school’s honor code and how it is implemented can be helpful in teaching what it means to have integrity. Children make mistakes. When they do, take time to figure out what happened. Were they working with another student on homework and thought it was okay? Did they use another person’s ideas feeling they came up with them on their own? Or, did they cheat out of desperation? For whatever reason, take advantage of the situation to help your child learn how to do it better the next time.

You may be interested in reading Honesty Is a Vital Part of Character for more on this important topic.

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If your child is a perfectionist, he may have trouble finishing his work in a timely manner. He may spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make each assignment or test question exactly right. He might feel that if he writes everything he knows about a question, he will get it correct. Usually, the extra effort does not pay off in better grades. In reality, the perfectionist who writes everything he knows often writes lower quality, disorganized answers. Even if the answers are well-written, there is more information given than is needed to answer the question. In some cases, he is not able to complete assignments within the time allowed, which also leads to lower grades. It is frustrating to feel you are working hard to produce excellent work, but it doesn’t receive the grade you are expecting. There are some strategies that may help.

Learn what an excellent answer looks like. Your daughter needs to see an answer that is well-written, concise, and correct. You can ask her teacher to help with this. Her teacher can take the response she gave and highlight what she should keep, cross off what she should delete, and discuss what she needs to add (if anything) for it to get all the possible points. If possible, she can see how another student wrote much less but still got all the points for the question.

Connect the question to the answer. She needs to connect key words in the question to the parts of the answer that respond to the key words. For this question:

“In your opinion, what are the three most important reasons to conserve energy?”

Your child should underline “three,” and “important reasons.” Her answer to that question can reflect these key words like this:

“Three important reasons to conserve energy are….”

By doing this, she will focus her answer on just three responses. She will choose the three she thinks are the most important and not get distracted writing about all six reasons that she actually knows. As she checks her work, she should count the three reasons and mentally connect them to the key words in the question.

Make sure to use study strategies effectively. Students who want everything to be perfect can get stuck studying a few concepts until they can remember them perfectly. Your son may spend so much time worrying about them that he does not get to finish studying all the concepts he needs to study. The gaps in knowledge caused by ineffective study cause anxiety during a test because he knows he doesn’t have everything he needs in the answer. For more information about study strategies read, Teach Your Kids How To Study.

There are times when being a perfectionist is a great asset. It becomes a problem, though, when it keeps you from finishing your work in a timely manner. Students who routinely do this can become anxious from worrying so much about the quality of the work and completing it on time. Learning how to answer questions correctly without over-writing, understanding how to connect key words in the question to the corresponding parts of the answer, and using study time more effectively can help reduce the amount of time spent on homework and when taking tests. This more effective use of time leads to less anxiety and better grades.

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Many schools have a rotating schedule, meaning only some classes meet each day. This can be very difficult for some students, especially those who are disorganized already. It becomes extremely important to figure out a system to keep up with the rotation of classes, know which classes are meeting the next day, and make sure all the work for those classes is completed on time. I recently asked several students about this to find out what systems they are using to help them.

Anna said that she does the homework for her classes the day it is assigned regardless of whether the class will be meeting the next day. This is ideal for students who normally procrastinate or for those who find keeping up with what classes are meeting next is just too confusing! She carries her schedule (which she color-coded) in the front of her binder so she knows which class to go to next. She doesn’t really have to know before arriving to school, because she already did all the work!

Marcus records in his calendar which classes are meeting each day. He is doing the homework the day before it is due, because he feels that it will be fresher on his mind. If he has a pop quiz, he will be ready to take it. This method does require some planning ahead, because he needs to check each afternoon before leaving school to make sure he takes home everything he will need to do his homework for the next day.

A third student told me she is in a state of confusion and not dealing well with the rotating schedule. For a student like this, it might be a necessity to help her set up an electronic calendar. My Study Life offers a free calendar that is customizable for every school. It does take some time to set up, because you cannot set up the rotation of classes without first setting up the school year calendar. Once the calendar is entered, you need to enter what happens when there is an unexpected holiday or snow day—is that rotation lost, or does it roll forward? At our school, we lose the day and go on to the next rotation when we return. The app lets you know which classes are meeting each day as well as any tasks you have entered.

If your child’s school is on a rotating schedule, it is important to help him figure out a system that will work for him. He needs to make sure to do the correct homework for each day. Whether he accomplishes that by doing it the day it is assigned (even when the class is not meeting the next day) or waiting until the night before it is due to do the work, he needs to consistently stay on track and keep up with all the work. If he’s having trouble, explore My Study Life to see if it can help.

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Absences from school are unavoidable at times. Illnesses and family emergencies are not predictable. Some students find themselves getting anxious about how to get caught up when they return. After an extended absence, it does seem overwhelming. Every teacher thinks primarily about what the student missed in their class and may not think about the big picture—that the student has just as much work to make up in every class. I have found a table to be very helpful in this situation.

Make a table with enough columns for every class your child is taking. Row one should list the classes and teacher’s names. The rows below are for listing the missing work and assignments from each class. Your child should take a printout of the table with her to meet with each of her teachers. Teachers can fill in the assignments with dates the teacher would like for each assignment to be complete. As the table is filled out by all teachers, it becomes evident that your child has a lot of work to do!

When I have helped students make these charts, the normal reaction is a sigh of relief. Even though there is a lot of work to be done, having it all listed in one place makes it less scary. Your child can ask for extensions on deadlines, when needed. As long as teachers can see he is making progress, they are normally OK with relaxing the deadlines. It is also OK to ask a teacher whether there is something that he can be exempted from doing. Some teachers are helpful when they understand that the absence was for a necessary reason.

Absences create stress in students because of how much work they miss while out. It is a good policy that children miss school only when necessary. Vacations should be planned on days when school is out. When absences cannot be avoided, using a table to help keep up with the makeup work can relieve some of the anxiety associated with having so much work to do all at once.

Tagged in: Homework Livia McCoy

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Classes in middle and upper school require students to take notes without assistance from the teacher. This is a difficult skill to master for many students, and it is not really taught anywhere in the curriculum. Those who normally use a computer for their homework must decide whether to use it for taking notes, as well. Notes have a purpose—to make sure students remember what they learned each day in class and to help review when time to take the test over the concepts. Here are some important things to consider when learning how to take meaningful notes.

  • What works for one student when taking notes may not work for another. If your daughter is right-brained and creative, she might need a colorful, artistic way to take notes. Her notes may look more like doodling with lots of pictures. There may be very few words, yet her notes make sense to her and help her to remember things. She might use several colors of ink with each color having meaning (i.e. red for new vocabulary terms, and blue to mark something the teacher said is extra important). On the other hand, your son may need to concentrate on listening to the teacher rather than taking any notes at all. I would encourage him to use something like AudioNotes, so he can listen again later if he needs to.
  • Trying to write everything the teacher says usually hurts learning instead of helps. Some research suggests that students who use a computer for notes are more likely to try to type every single word the teacher says, and they perform poorly when compared to students who take their notes by hand. When taking notes by hand, students have to really engage with the learning to decide what is most important to write down. They know there is no way to get everything down on paper. If your daughter is typing on a computer and typing without thinking about her learning, encourage her to think about what the teacher is saying and only type what she thinks is important
  • Leave some empty space on each page of notes. Either write on every other line, or leave the last two inches of each line blank. This space gives room to add more information from the textbook later when doing homework for that class.
  • Each evening during homework time, review the notes taken that day. Highlight the key vocabulary or facts that were introduced. Make flashcards or use Quizlet to study these details before the test. Another strategy when revisiting notes is to make a web of related concepts. This helps make sure you understand how the topics relate to each other. We believe these connections help the brain to create strong memories.

Taking good notes is a skill. All skills need to be practiced to become strong. Discuss some of these strategies with your son who is learning what kind of notes are going to work the best for him. Encourage him to think when writing or typing notes rather than to try to get the teacher’s lecture down word-for-word. Explain the importance of leaving some empty space on the page and show your daughter what she can do each night to make her notes more helpful. Taking good notes is one of the most important student skills to learn. With a little thought and practice, your son or daughter can be the student everyone else asks for copies of their notes!

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Sometimes, your child might want to try out for a sport or take art lessons, even when you know she really doesn’t have the aptitude for it. It is tempting to discourage her from trying, because it is hard to watch your child try but not be successful. A friend of mine, who I taught many years ago, recently posted to Facebook a particularly thoughtful way to think about how to handle this situation. The following is what he said (edited for clarity and used with his permission):

“I watched a dad on Saturday be the father I hope I can be. His son had a [physical] disability--not sure what it was, but he had muscular issues. The son wanted to try out for a fall baseball team. The coaches worked with his dad to find him a bat he could swing to give him a chance. The dad didn't say, “No son. Don't try. You can't do it.” He said, “Just try and do your best.”

When did we stop letting our children try because we are too afraid they might fail? The father told him to try his best and hope for the best…That has stuck with me, and the more I think about it the more I smile. I think about my parents who always pushed me and let me try. Did I fail? Of course I did, but I learned to fight harder and want it more.

I just wanted to share this with all parents….Let's push our children to make sure they do their best. They might not succeed, but we shouldn't crush their dream because we are scared they might fail. Not succeeding isn't the worst thing. Not letting them try is the worst thing!”

Parents need to offer their children support by encouraging them to try new things, work hard, and do their best. The most successful people are the ones who work the hardest and experience some failure along the way. As Michael Jordan said, “To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail.” Let your child know that no matter how well he does, you will be proud of his effort and hard work. And, don’t forget to tell him every day how much you love him.

Best wishes to all as we begin the 2015-16 school year! May it be the best one yet.

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Children across America are returning to school! Summer vacation is over. Most kids stay up late and sleep a lot later in the morning during the summer months. It is now time to start getting used to an earlier bedtime and wake-up time so your children won’t be sleepy and tired the first few weeks of school. A few changes in daily routines during the school year can make this year go more smoothly.

  • Try to keep school supplies organized and in one area. The supplies should include a planner, which is one of the essentials to keep up with schoolwork and commitments. A desk is nice but not necessary. The kitchen table is a great place to study. Inexpensive plastic shoe boxes work beautifully to hold pencils, pens, markers, glue, and tape. Paper can be stacked on a shelf nearby. Binders and notebooks can be color-coded and stored in a book bag along with any homework just completed.
  • Spend 20 minutes every day getting organized. Some students do this without assistance, but if your child is disorganized, she will need your help with this until it becomes a habit. Before leaving for school, she should check her planner to make sure she is taking everything she needs for the day. Before leaving school in the afternoon, she should check her planner to make sure she is taking the correct books and assignments home. And, just after doing her homework, she should put everything she used back in its place.
  • Monitor your child’s time using electronics. Some parents have an additional plastic shoe box where phones go during homework time and when going to bed. Teens should not sleep with their electronic gear nearby. It is very common for kids to text one another off and on all night (check your child’s messages to see when he is texting). Too much light from the screen can also interfere with the ability to go to sleep.
  • Decide together how many extracurricular activities are appropriate for your family and healthy for your teen. Many teens are so booked with activities that they do not have time to do well in school. My rule of thumb with my own children was that they could play one sport or one have major commitment (such as marching band) each season. Once they made a commitment, they had to stay with it until the end of the season. Parents and children should make this decision together, but keep in mind that there are only so many hours in the day!

In my student support role, the two problems that come up the most with struggling students are time management and organization. Some students can manage this without help, but many need support to learn how. You can provide daily help until your child begins to manage on her own. Making sure your child has what she needs, teaching her how to keep it organized, and monitoring how she spends her time each day can help overcome these issues.

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There is much concern about the increase in the rate of children diagnosed with autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder-ASD). The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2000, one out of every 150 children was diagnosed with ASD, and in 2010, one out of every 68 is diagnosed. This is a huge increase in just a short period of time. There are several possible reasons why there are more now than there were before. Recent changes in the definition of autism (the diagnostic criteria) account for a significant part of the new cases. Children may have been diagnosed differently before the new criteria were published. Studies of where these autistic children live show that they are more concentrated in areas where there are hospitals and clinics. Professionals are available who can accurately diagnose and treat children with ASD, and therefore more children are identified. It is also possible that we as a society are more informed about autism and more likely to seek a diagnosis for our children. Ongoing studies are seeking an explanation for the increase.

To diagnose a child with ASD, a mental health professional uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5). According to the DSM-5, all of the following must be true before a child is diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder:

  • The child does not communicate and interact with other children as well as expected for her age. Perhaps she is not able to recognize and interpret facial expressions.
  • At least two different types of “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior” exist. For example, the child may want to play with one toy in exactly the same way over and over again.
  • The symptoms must be present early in the child’s life. An older child may not have the same severity of symptoms, because he has learned how to manage them, but the symptoms existed earlier.
  • The symptoms affect normal day-to-day functioning.
  • There is not a better explanation for the symptoms. For example, the child may have a cognitive disability that better explains his symptoms.

To learn more about ASD and what to look for in your child, you might want to read Signs and Symptoms available from the CDC. The diagnostic criteria include a range of symptoms so wide that some autistic children function very well with proper training, yet others will never function well. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the quicker he or she can get help. If you have concerns about your child, a visit to the pediatrician is the first step.

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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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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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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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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.


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