SchoolFamily Voices

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

Multitasking or Just Plain Distracted?

There is a lot of talk about multitasking these days. Many claim they can do two things at once. However, if two tasks require conscious attention, we cannot do both of them at the same time and do both well. If we try to do two things at once, performance on both of them drops.

What does this mean in school or when doing homework? Students and parents need to understand:

  • When a task requires focused attention, students need to purposefully ignore anything else that distracts them. For example, if your son is working on his math homework, he should not be watching television, playing video games between problems, listening to loud music, answering his cell phone, or watching YouTube videos. In fact, it is a good idea to remove these distractions from his study area.
  • Students who bring a laptop or tablet to school must discipline themselves. When in class, your daughter should keep her computer open to the word processor to take notes and not flip back and forth between that and shopping online for new shoes.
  • When text messaging, pretty much all of one’s attention is absorbed. Text messaging while walking or jogging can be dangerous. Statistics are showing that texting while driving is causing a huge number of car accidents because it takes up too much of our attention. Similarly, in class, text messaging occupies attention and blocks learning.

None of this is new information, but it is important. Not very long ago, almost none of my students owned a smartphone. Today it is rare that they don’t have one within easy reach. I love that we can look up information almost instantly when someone asks a question. But, because the number of devices like smartphones is increasing, the potential for distraction in class is also increasing. This affects students’ ability to learn and produce quality work. This growing problem warrants examination.

I would love to have input from you. Do you talk to your children about responsible use of their electronic devices at home and in school? What should teachers do to help their students understand the effects of trying to multitask when learning something new? Do you believe we can multitask effectively or are we really allowing ourselves to be distracted when we should be working?

> Eliminate Distractions While Doing Homework

> Managing Technology Distractions on School Nights

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Keep Communication Lines Open on Mobile Safety

As parents, we want to convey the right messages about mobile safety so our kids understand the importance of behaving responsibly when using smartphones.

But these conversations can be tough. Did you know two out of five kids say their parents haven’t talked to them about mobile safety?

Sometimes kids don’t want “a lecture,’’ and sometimes parents feel they aren’t being heard. One option is to have a conversation with your child using the Family Guide to Mobile Safety, a free downloadable guide SchoolFamily.com developed in partnership with AT&T.

One strategy: Pick a quiet time over the weekend when no one feels rushed, sit down with your child, and use the information in the guide as key talking points.

Also, parents can check out the new Mobile Families resources on our site, where there is a collection of related articles about such important issues as screen time and how to best select and use technology and apps.

You can download the entire eight page Family Guide or download individual printables. The individual printables include:

  • The Family Mobile Safety Agreement. Parents and kids can discuss appropriate mobile phone behavior, agree to follow the rules, and sign the document together.
  • Is your child ready for a cell phone? A guide to help determine better when it makes sense to make this important purchase.
  • How to behave online. This document gives parents talking points on what it means to be a good digital citizen.
  • What’s with all the texting? This guide gives information about what kids should or should never text.
  • Establishing ground rules. This document has pointers for parents on how to set rules for phone use.
  • Apps: Where to start. This guide give suggestions so parents can make better app purchasing decisions.
  • Cell phone checklist: Gives a list of steps on how to navigate the first mobile phone purchase.
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Connecting With Your Kids About Mobile Phone Safety

If you are the parent of a teen or tween who has a mobile phone (or may be getting one for the holidays), you might have concerns about her safety. Will your child get bullied via texts? Will she make bad choices and be the sender of inappropriate messages?

It can be challenging to convey the right messages to your children so that they take seriously the responsibility of having a phone but don’t get overwhelmed. There’s a great online resource from AT&T that parents can use to help get the conversation started with their kids about mobile phone safety.

AT&T has many resources you can download that provide tips for explaining how kids can be responsible mobile phone users and for setting rules. The materials are offered for different age groups so parents can target messages appropriately for younger phone users (8-11), middle school kids (12-14), or high schoolers(15-17).

Another section on the AT&T site provides its mobile safety study results. There’s plenty of helpful information on phone usage—some of it might even be a bit of a shocker for some parents. For example, more than half (53 percent) of kids surveyed by AT&T report that they have ridden with someone who was texting and driving.

Also, there’s a cool downloadable Mobile Safety Family Agreement that you can use with your kids to establish ground rules and good digital behavior for everyone.

The AT&T resources can help parents and kids share the responsibilities of mobile phone safety so that it is a successful and long-term team effort.

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Eliminate Distractions While Doing Homework

 Many students have a hard time staying focused on a task. Much has been written about teenagers who are growing up in the media age. Most agree that they are very good at multitasking. In a report featured on NPR, the actions of a student named Zach, which were typical of many teens, were described as follows: “Within the span of seconds, Zach switches between e-mail, iTunes, Facebook, a computer word puzzle game, and messaging his buddy online. Somewhere amid the flurry, Zach manages to squeeze in some homework, too.”

 My concern is what this behavior is doing to teens and their ability to stay focused to finish a task. If Zach is only managing “to squeeze in some homework,” how good can that homework be? And, beyond that, what is happening to Zach’s ability to learn and think? Dr. Beth Hellerstein, a University Hospital pediatrician and assistant clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, said this is a recent interview with online magazine Your Teen, “When students are distracted while studying they may be learning facts but are not able to integrate them and apply them to a higher level of thinking. Doctors and educators worry about how this superficial learning will impact long term recall and application of the knowledge and skills.”

 How can students prevent themselves from getting distracted while doing their schoolwork? The first step is to identify what distracts them. In the example above, Zach is distracted by software running on his computer (email, Facebook, a word puzzle game, and instant messaging). He is also distracted by his iPod. Many teens have a cell phone, television, and snacks to the list of distractions.

 Once a student has identified the distractions, he needs to decide to eliminate them while doing homework. He needs to shut down all software except for what is needed to do the work. His iPod needs to be turned off and put out of sight. The television and cell phone also need to be off and out of sight.

 Other things that keep students from their work include clutter in the workspace, interruptions from siblings or friends, and looking for the necessary supplies such as paper, pencils, markers, glue, etc. Parents can assist by offering to help clear the workspace, keeping others from interrupting and making sure their child has the appropriate supplies.

 It takes organization and planning skills to take charge of the distractions. For help with ideas for organization, read A Notebook System That Aids With Organization. For more ideas about how you can help your child to learn more from homework, read How to Help Kids Get the Most Out of Their Homework Sessions.

You may also be interested in these related articles on SchoolFamily.com:

Summer is A Good Time to Learn to Type 

Voice-to-Text Software: Great Homework Tool for Kids Who Have Difficulty Writing 

Middle Schoolers Still Benefit From Being Read To




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Are Your Teens Using "SelfControl"?

At SchoolFamily.com, we offer parents lots of information about keeping kids focused on their schoolwork, and staying (or getting) motivated. We also offers ways to help parents set limits on the time their kids spend in front of a screen, be it a computer screen, a video-game screen, or that of a cellphone.


Now, it seems, some teens have found a way do some self-limiting all on their own.


An app called SelfControl, developed by an artist named Steve Lambert, allows users to completely block online items they don’t want to be distracted by, such as their email accounts, websites, and, in particular, social media sites. The app allows them to block access to these accounts for a specified amount of time—and lots of teens are using it. Best of all, they say, it can’t be hacked and opened.


“You cannot unlock it once it’s on,” said a 16-year old girl I recently spoke with. Asked why—and when—she uses the app, she explained, “I put it on for two hours when I’m doing homework, and it blocks my email, Tumblr and some other websites.”


How does SelfControl “know” which sites or email accounts to block? “You put things on a ‘blacklist,’” the teen explained, “and those are the programs that are blocked.” 


The app’s icon is a black spade with a skull and crossbones in the center. While it’s by far the most popular self-limiting app out there, it’s not the only one. Teens—and adults, for that matter—can use SelfRestraint, Quiet, and StayFocused, to name just a few.


While it’s not necessarily a bad thing that teenagers are using these high-tech tools to limit their own online behavior, it’s disconcerting that the need for such software even exists.


Oh, and as for that teenage girl I recently spoke with? She’s my daughter. Are any of your kids using these apps?



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Survey says sexting is less prevelant than originally believed

The Internet has been abuzz this week with news that the practice of sexting—kids texting naked photos or videos of themselves or others via cell phone—is nowhere near as rampant as we’d all been led to believe.

The news is the result of a national survey conducted by researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire, and was reported Monday in Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The four authors of the survey, which is called “Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study,” concluded that making or sending sexual images is “… far from being a normative behavior” among teens and younger children.

However, the study found that while the rate of sexting is lower than initially believed, children and teens need to be better informed about the “legal consequences of sexting,” and, more immediately, what to do if they receive such an image.

Has your teen received any sexting images? Might be good to ask. It also might be good for you to refresh your Internet safety knowledge by reading SchoolFamily.com's Internet Safety Tips for Parents.

Conducted by phone, the CCRC survey included 1,560 young people, ages 10-17, who use the Internet. Just 2 ½ percent said they’d made nude or nearly nude photos or videos of themselves, and of that figure, only 1 percent said the images were “sexually explicit” (i.e. images of breasts, genitals, or buttocks).

However, far more students—7 percent—reported receiving nude or nearly nude images of other youth, while 5.9 percent said they’d received images that were sexually explicit.

Researchers also found that few students who reported receiving such images had then distributed them.

The study was conducted by Kimberly J. Mitchell, Ph.D., a psychologist at UNH; David Finkelhor, Ph.D., UNH sociology professor and director of the CCCRC; Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D., research assistant and professor of psychology at the CCRC; and Janis Wolak, JD, a senior researcher at the CCRC.

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Cell Phones For Tweens: Tips On When and Why

Both of my children have cell phones. And both phones, in my mind, were purchased for the sole purpose of keeping in touch. With me. 

Them, not so much. To them, their cell phones serve the purpose of allowing virtually-constant contact with friends. And for my son, his phone also serves as a timepiece; read that blog post here.

When I first got the kids their cell phones - when they were both "tweens" - I learned the hard way about the cost of going over the wireless plan's small monthly allotment for text messaging. My daughter quickly burned through the texting limit (my son wasn't, and still isn't, much of a texter; if I send him a text message, he calls me back).

While I soon set limits for my daughter due to her texting proclivities, I also quietly signed up for unlimited texting through my wireless carrier. But, how great it would have been to have had some objective guidance on the subject at the time.

That guidance is now available. If you're considering a cell phone for your tween, or if he or she already has one, you'll want to read "Tweens and cell phones: What parents need to know during back-to-school season" from the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C.

The guide offers tips about why, when, and how, to purchase a cell phone for your tween. To begin, the guide suggests that parents answer a series of questions ("Why does your child need a cell phone?" and "Will the phone primarily be used for emergency calls, or for entertainment and texting friends?"), and then take the list with them when they shop. The guide also includes "Rules of the Road," with tips for parents on setting limits on cell phone use, and a comprehensive guide to the types of cell phone plans available.

It's a terrific resource, and one I truly wish I'd had.


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New iPhone Apps Help Parents Receive School Notices, Deal With Head Lice, and Find the Nearest Restroom

"There's an app for that." Are you familiar with this phrase? Perhaps it's one uttered by your kids on occasion (or on a daily basis). It's a phrase my daughter says frequently right before she sighs and gently gives me one of those "Mom, you're such a dinosaur" looks. Apps are application software programs that address  almost every subject imaginable. First created for the the Apple iPhone, more and more apps are becoming available for the BlackBerry, the Droid, and many other smartphones.

There are a couple of new iPhone apps that caught my eye recently. One is called ParentLink Mobile Parent. It's an app that allows you to receive automated calls from your child's school sent directly to your iPhone. These calls are being made by most schools today, and inform parents of everything from the opening day of school to emergency school closings. This free app is available from ParentLink.net, also allows parents to update their contact information with their school's automated call system directly from their cell phones. 

An app I hope I never have to use is The Facts of Lice by Fairy Tales Hair Care. Yes, this app helps parents whose children have been infected with head lice. Not only are head lice pesky to treat, their presence means kids can't be in school as long as they have "nits" in their hair, these being the eggs laid by active lice (note: You may want to check to see if your child's school has a "No Nits" and/or a "No Lice" policy). Be aware that the company is plugging its own line of lice treatment and prevention products, and includes a salon locator where the products may be purchased locally. That said, the app also includes helpful, general information about lice, as well as a way to track an outbreak and be notified of outbreaks in your area. 

Finally, an iPhone app that no pregnant woman or mother of small children should be without: Where to Wee. My daughter told me about this site (since she complains that I use the ladies room "all the time"), and I'll admit it's come in handy more than once when we've been traveling. The app allows you to find the nearest restrooms - especially critical if you're potty training little ones - and rate bathrooms on cleanliness, and the availability of soap and paper towels. In addition, for some hilarious reading, check out the Where to Wee blog.



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Managing Technology Distractions on School Nights

Cell phones, Facebook, I-Touch, Xbox + students + parents… can they peacefully co-exist and survive the school year? How do we best teach our kids to manage technology distractions on school nights? Hmmm.

Did you ever stop to think that because we are addressing this very question we are making history? This is a new problem that gets more complex with every new release of cell phones, gaming systems, etc.  How to address this issue has not yet been solved. I know this because I have googled many phrases in attempt to come up with a plan for my family:

Technology limits on school nights
Technology limits + kids + homework
Guidelines for cell phone use + study skills + teens

What did I find online? Not a lot. I learned that too much Facebook affects academic performance. Now there’s a surprise. Also learned that t(w)eens will text all night  if you let them keep their phone in their room. Shocking. What I didn’t seem to find is how to help our kids manage all these distractions. So, my husband and I  did what any good parents would do: We talked to other parents and compared notes on kids, homework and technology rules. Next, we developed a list of guidelines for technology on school nights that we felt fit our situation and kids.  

Thought I would share our guidelines here in hopes that other parents will jump into the conversation.  

School Night Technology Rules

After School/Before Homework Technology

  • Can check Facebook 15 min max  & be on computer for homework related stuff only
  • i-Touch for checking Facebook - 15 minutes

During Homework

  • I-Touch - Music Only   -   if used for surfing the net, or Facebook, I-Touches will be downstairs
  • Cell phones- in kitchen (our kids do homework at desks in their bedrooms)
  • Can check cell phones on homework breaks
  • Note: our computer is in our family room.

After Homework Approved Activities

  • Chores get done first
  • Outside activities
  • TV
  • Read 
  • Hobbies (xbox is not a hobby)
  • Friends
  • No i-Touch games or internet-  Music only
  • No XBox
  • Can talk to friends via Skype  

Night Time/In Bed

  • Cell phones downstairs
  • I-Touch for music only- No internet or games


  • Homework needs to start no later than 3pm 
  • No XBOX after 3

You may be wondering why we felt the need to write up such specific rules for our family.  I will tell you that typically my husband and I fall into the authoritative parent style category. As for our kids, they are good kids; they have lots of interests, make great choices with friends, they get good grades, and are kind and respectful. For these reasons, last year we went the route of "discussing" guidelines and hoping that our kids would learn to self-manage. Simply put, this approach didn’t work.

So fast forward to the family meeting where we told our kids about the "new plan." Well, you can imagine that this went over like a lead balloon.  As anticipated, we had a very heated and healthy exchange with our kids. Their reaction: these rules are way too extreme. 

So, here’s the gist of what we told our kids... when they were little it was our job to keep them safe. Now that they are older we want to empower them to make good choices but  this technology thing is just too darn alluring. Stay in touch with your friends 24-7? That’s a t(w)een’s dream. Science tells us that t(w)eens brains are not wired to multi-task nor can they be expected be a steel trap of self-discipline. They are not unmotivated or bad kids – it’s just unfair to think that they could have their cell phone and Facebook accessible  during homework and not be tempted to check it … a lot. (Yes, we have cell phone texting records to prove this theory ;  ) Our goal is to have balanced kids, that do well in school and pursue hobbies and friendships that don’t always involve technology. Hopefully by taking this approach, our kids will arrive at the spring of senior year with lots of options for colleges and have no regrets (because they didn’t apply themselves).  Once we explained our thoughts, they actually came around. Yes, they are still speaking to us. I may even go so far as to say that I think they are relieved to have some limits set. I'll have to get back to you on that one. 

So now it’s your turn. How do you manage technology distractions on school nights in your house? What has worked and not worked? Would you add or subtract anything to our list?




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Should Schools Discipline Students for Cyber-bullying that Occurs Outside of School?

Just finished reading the New York Times article "Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray." If you have kids in grades 4-9, I strongly recommend that you read this article. But be forewarned, it will leave your head spinning. The examples of cyber-bulling via cellphones and social media sites, such as Facebook, Formspring and Youtube, are mind-numbing and disturbing. You are left saying, "How can kids be so cruel?" ... and ... "Maybe I should monitor my kids texts and Facebook pages more often."

But the question this NYT article raises is not about internet safety and monitoring but rather how and where should the bullying harassment be handled?  When kids do cyberbullying outside of school and the school learns of the altercation, should the actions be punishable at school? Talk about gray area. As with so many parenting and teen and tween topics, we are asking the question: where do you draw the proverbial line? You can't deny that if someone sends a nasty text away from school, that there is slim chance that the parties involved will set their differences aside when the walk through the school doors. The hurt will percolate and fester, and eventually a teacher, guidance counselor or principal will hear about it. So, then what's a school to do? We count on our school administrators to promote a safe environment for our children. Isn't anti-bullying part of that? 

What is your take ...  when it comes to matters of extreme cyberbullying (that happen outside of school but spills over into the school day) is it the principal's or school administrator's job to play judge or prosecutor?  Would love to hear your thoughts on this complex and unfortunate question. 


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Homework, Technology and Teens, Oh My!

A homework time vignette: 

Mom (through the bedroom door): "Where is your cell phone and itouch?"

Tween or teen: "I have them right here. I need to check my Facebook to see if Matty got back to me about our group project and Sean is texting me about math."

Mom:  "I want you to put your cell phone and itouch downstairs while doing your homework -- so you can focus."

Tween or teen:"Mom, it's fine. I can handle it. I'll get my homework done."


... Sound familiar? Variations of this exchange have taken different forms in my house. Homework and technology are a constant battle.

A popular topic of conversation amongst teen parents is how their teens do their homework while texting their friends, listening to music, and checking Facebook. Some parents have resigned to this homework approach. As the parenting saying goes: You have to pick your battles.  Well this is one battle I have picked. But I have to admit, there have been times that I have questioned my resolve. As the video below points out, teens are very good at multi-tasking.  Maybe this is just is just the way of the new technology age? My kids do get their homework done.  But then I wonder... they are getting it done, but are they getting it done as well as they could be? Also, it is our jobs as parents to help our children develop good study habits and time management skills.  After all, high school study skills matter, right? 

Then I came across the video below. Yep, this is the one my kids wished I hadn't found. It confirms what we all suspect: that it's not efficient to multi-task while doing homework.  So watch the video -- it offers some interesting information about how the brain works relative to multi-tasking and higher order thinking. Bet you'll be joining the No Technology during Homework police brigade. 

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Technology Time Eating into Family Time?

A colleague forwarded this NY Times article titled "Breakfast Can Wait. The Day's First Stop is Online."  The story actually made my stomach do a flip- flop. No, not because I skipped  breakfast to check my email and Facebook... but because it worries me to the core, how technology will affect how our kids interact with other human beings when they are adults.  We set limits on bedtimes and dessert – we need to have common sense limits on technology, too.

My favorite quote in the article:

“Things that I thought were unacceptable a few years ago are now commonplace in my house,” she said, “like all four of us starting the day on four computers in four separate rooms.”

Yikes.  So do we just roll over and say that times have changed? The sense I get from this story is that some parents are giving up. The parents themselves have succumbed to addictive nature of technology, so how can they say no to their kids.  I applaud the families that have said no to technology every minute of every day and have designated family time --  like the Steyer family in this article.

How has technology affected your daily routines?

What rules do you set around computer & cell phone use?

Do you think technology will impair our kids’ ability to communicate person to person?


Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Cell Phone Rules Tightening at Schools

This Mississippi district isn't alone in trying to clamp down on cell phone use at school. Sounds like these guys are taking a common-sense approach to appropriate controls over outright ban. Thinking abouta cell for your dear son or daughter? Here are some kids' cell phone shopping tips from our staff.
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Kids and Cell Phones

Each school year, it seems more and more kids head off to school toting cell phones. I imagine the old school pay phone (20 years later, I can still remember the calling card code I used daily!) will soon be going the way of the dinosaur.

So of course, we've covered the trend with this piece on kids' cell phone buying tips. I also found this video from the New York Times technology expert (these guys are always following our lead it's getting tiresome) pretty good. Good to see that the phone companies are coming up with just-for-kids phones so that we parents can benefit from the safety and convenience elements while still guarding against the always-plugged-in temptations that abound these days.
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Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?

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

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