SchoolFamily Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Ways To Motivate Students To Do Their Best

One of the most difficult parts of raising kids is motivating them to do their best work. Adolescents can be externally motivated (like when you take their smartphone away from them until they get their grades up to an acceptable level). You are the source of motivation in that scenario. But it is much better if they are internally motivated—when they want to do their best regardless of what others think.

There are many theories about motivation; they are difficult to prove, because there are so many variables involved. There are some things, however, that are common sense and mostly supported by research. We know that students are more motivated when they have a personal interest in a subject, they like the teacher, they feel like the adults in their life care about them, and their basic needs are taken care of (like food, sleep, and shelter).

What can we do as parents and teachers to encourage self-motivation? What I am going to suggest here is primarily based on my own experience working many years with middle and upper school students, but there is research supporting it.

  • Praise your child only when she is working hard and doing her best. Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that children need constant praise in order to raise their self-esteem. When we praise them for work that does not deserve it, they are not motivated to try harder, and it does not raise their self-esteem. It just gives them a sense of entitlement—“I deserve praise no matter what I do.”
  • Let your child do his own work even when it is really hard for him to do. If parents rescue their children from all failure, what the child learns is that he is not capable of doing it himself. This completely destroys the motivation to try at all.
  • When your child is given the appropriate level of work to do, he is more motivated to give it a try. He should not take an honors level class when the work is really too hard for him. The opposite of this is true, as well. When he is placed in a regular level class but belongs in honors, he will not be motivated because the work is too easy. Interestingly enough, in either situation he will report that he is bored in class (either in a class that’s too hard or in a class that’s too easy).
  • Nothing motivates your child as much as success. This relates to the last point because she is more likely to succeed when in the appropriate course. The level of work given to her should be challenging but she should be able to successfully do most of it if she tries hard. She should be offered multiple ways to show what she knows. Some students will make amazing videos; others shine when they get to perform a skit. This success is motivating and makes her want to do better on other types of assignments.

The final point I want to make is that children believe what they hear the adults in their life say. Tell your child that you love him no matter what, and you are so happy to have him in your life. Countless times in my career, I have heard kids say, “No matter how hard I try, it’s never good enough for my parents.” Your words are important and can either motivate or discourage.

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The Keys to Success in School

In my nearly 30 years of teaching, I have worked with many students who are struggling and anxious. There are times when these kids are their own worst enemy. The choices they make often exacerbate the problem. Here are some choices students make that affect their success in school.
Do I feel well enough to go to school today? Encourage your child to strive for perfect attendance. The amount of work he does in a day at school is pretty daunting. He spends 45-plus minutes in each class discussing new concepts, taking notes, practicing problems, writing essays, or doing group work. Activities like class discussions and group work cannot be made up after an absence. He normally has homework assignments that relate to the class work. Unless he was there, he cannot do the homework. Each day he misses adds tremendously to his struggle and anxiety about school. There are times when missing school cannot be avoided (such as, he has a virus or is running a fever), but unless that’s the case, send him to school. For more about attendance, see “Student Absences: They Hurt Learning More Than You Might Think.”

Should I work on my homework right now?
Teach your child that school is hard work that takes a lot of time. A strong work ethic is more related to success in school and life than is intelligence. She needs to set aside plenty of time each day to complete the work that is due the next day. She also needs to complete some portion of any long-term projects she has been assigned. This prevents her from being caught trying to do a project that was supposed to take two weeks on the night before it is due. To make sure she does not forget something, she needs to have a planner where she writes down everything that is due (including the chunks of each project) and checks each off as she completes it.

Should I study for my English test tonight?
Your child needs to understand that studying takes time and works better when spread over several nights. Reading through his notes is not studying. It is a good thing to do, but it does not assure that he actually knows the concepts and can recall them on a test. Read “Teach Your Kids How To Study” for help knowing what studying really is.

I was talking to a colleague who said that he puts a question on every test that asks students to tell him how they studied for it. He said that kids are pretty honest about answering it, and it gives him the opportunity to ask them whether they think that was a good choice or not. I might add two more questions. How many days of school did you miss during this unit? Did you complete all your homework and projects? Parents can ask these same questions and encourage their children to improve in these areas. Attendance, daily work ethic, and study skills are keys to success in school.

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Helping a Student Catch Up After an Illness

Students who have to miss several days of school feel overwhelmed when they return. Some fear being so far behind that they wind up missing extra days, because they are so anxious about the amount of work they need to do. The strategy I use with students may not work for every child in every situation, but it is worth giving it a try.

The first thing to do is figure out exactly what work needs to be completed. I help the student make a chart with each course listed across the top. Beneath each class, we list the work she needs to complete. We use the assignment sheets posted online to get the information. Your child might have to call friends to find out.

Next, I have her take the chart around to her teachers so they can add any details and make notes on the chart. I coach her to ask if there are assignments they might be able to excuse her from completing without jeopardizing her learning.

Then, I tell her to try her best to keep up with all current homework. In addition to that day’s work, she needs to do one or two additional past-due assignments each day. She also needs to ask friends for copies of notes she missed from each class and to meet with her teachers before taking any tests she missed.

This strategy helps because the amount of make-up work doesn’t seem so bad once it’s in writing and there is a plan for making it up. When it’s an unknown, it seems impossible. This way, the student sees a discreet number of assignments to complete and he doesn’t feel so overwhelmed. Remember, too, that every assignment needs to be completed in order to avoid getting zeroes, because one missing grade can make a huge difference.

I am currently reading Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. In it, she tells of a time when her younger brother had procrastinated for months on a project about birds. The night before it was due, he was sitting at the table completely overwhelmed and not getting anything done. Lamott says her father put his arm around his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” So I call this my “bird by bird” method and attribute its name to Anne Lamott: Just do one assignment at a time, then mark it off the chart!

As a parent, it is fine for you to email your child’s teachers to inform them of the reason he was absent. You should mention that he is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of make-up work he needs to do. Most teachers are sympathetic in these situations and will offer to help. Tell them to expect to see the chart of past due work and explain what you would like for them to do to help.

It is so hard to make up work after absences.  You need to be very careful about allowing your child to miss school without a good reason. (See "Student Absences: They Hurt Learning More Than You Think.") It is never a good idea to send her to school when she is sick, though, and not all absences can be avoided. Encourage her by telling her how you will help her get her missed work caught up when she feels better. She can do it one assignment at a time! She can just take it “bird by bird.”

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Middle and High School: Helping Teens Solve Their Own Problems

This guest blog post is by Erika Cook, a high school administrator who works directly with parents and students.

Help Teens Solve Their Own ProblemsWhen your teen has a problem at school, what should you do? Perhaps your child has a streak of missing assignments, feels the teacher made a grading error, or just plain doesn’t get along with the teacher. It was easy in elementary school because it was natural just to call the teacher. However, once your child reaches middle school, it is harder to know when to get involved as a parent and when you should encourage your child to speak up for himself at school.

Oftentimes, your teen can see his teacher outside of class to review a grade, discuss learning needs, or schedule good old-fashioned help, which should solve most issues. Most teachers promote the idea of teens depending on themselves for their learning; it’s seen as an important life skill.

When talking to your teen about seeing her teacher, a few of these possible talking points might be nice conversation-starters. (Remind her not to forget to use “please” and “thank you.”)

  • Will you review the important causes of the Civil War?
  • Is it possible to go over the quiz questions so I can learn from my mistakes?
  • Since I have a hard time taking notes, do you have any graphic organizers I could use?
  • I am missing multiple-choice test questions; what advice do you have?
  • Would you look at my paper and give me some feedback on how to improve C-level writing?
  • How would you suggest I study for the test on Hamlet?
  • How do I improve my performance during tryouts next season?
  • What should be my next step to keep improving in this sport?
  • What resources are available for me to get help in biology?

When and where should your child approach the teacher? You might want to brainstorm with your teen about a good time to talk to the teacher. Encourage your child to see her teacher during the teacher’s designated preparation periods or before or after school. Students don’t always realize that their teachers are very busy right before and after class. And help your child figure out where the teacher might be at the right time. Sometimes it isn’t as easy as one classroom; a lot of teachers travel from room to room and have a desk in a shared office.

To help your child practice in advance how the conversation will go, you can role-play and pretend to be the teacher. This could help build up your child’s confidence to address the situation. One important aspect for your teen to remember is to focus on the problem and not skirt the issue.

Ask your child whether he has tried talking to anyone else at school about the problem. This might include a counselor, social worker, resource teacher, or administrator. If it makes sense, you should encourage your teen to make a “friend” at the school to help with this and future issues.

These tips for guiding your teens to solve their own problems, while understanding when and how you should get involved, will hopefully help you and your child solve school issues. Just remember, teachers and parents are on the same team; everyone wants your student to succeed. If you use respect, gratitude, and kindness with teachers, you and your teen should have excellent results.

Erika Cook

Erika Cook holds a PhD in educational policy and leadership and an MA in curriculum. She serves as an associate principal at one of America’s top-ranked high schools, and she spends her days educating parents and students about the high school world. She has taught in classrooms ranging from special needs to Advanced Placement and was the recipient of two Fulbright scholarships.

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Overcoming the Fear of Making an Oral Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Problems Copying From the Board

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

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

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

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

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

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Developmental Differences in Thinking Ability

When children are very young, they can only think about concrete things—objects they can actually see or touch. The curriculum in early elementary school begins with things that are concrete. For example, science instruction starts with something like growing plants from seeds, and math uses blocks to teach children how to count. Later, children can think about abstract things that they cannot actually touch. They can count without the blocks, and they understand that 10 is larger than 4. In science classes, students begin to study things like the weather or atoms and molecules.

There are estimated ages when children are supposed to be able to move from concrete thinking into the abstract. But my experience is that the age when this occurs varies widely. I have taught students in the 9th grade who had a difficult time with anything abstract. I wondered whether they would ever be able to do it. With persistence and lots of practice, most of them were able to.

Learning occurs when connections form between neurons in the brain. I think the process of moving from concrete to abstract is simply a matter of waiting for enough of those connections to form. Some students are not ready developmentally to think in the abstract, but once they mature a little more, they can. My experience is that once a student “makes the leap” the first time, afterward they are able to think abstract thoughts fairly easily. It takes some students a long time to get there, but they eventually do!

Some people learn best through experiences and they remember things because they got to do it. They can tell a story about what was happening in class, which is how their memory works. One hypothesis is that these students may be the ones who develop abstract thinking later than their peers. They need to have more experiences before they have enough stored in their brain to begin making the necessary connections between neurons. (I first heard this when I read The Dyslexic Advantage by Eide and Eide.)

If your child is still primarily thinking in concrete ways, it’s important to keep trying to get them to think at higher levels. Ask them questions about abstract things and give them fun problems to solve. Play games that require strategic thinking. Talk through how you solve the problems and the strategies to use when playing the games. These experiences will help those neurons grow and those connections form in their brain. After that, abstract thinking will be easier for them.

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Some Children Just Need Time To Think

Young children take more time to process information than older kids do. Parents and teachers have a tendency to speak too quickly for them, and they get confused easily. Remember Mr. Rogers? He spoke very slowly to children, which made it easier for them to follow what he was saying.

In general, the older a child is, the quicker he is at thinking. However, not all older children process information quickly, and that can make a huge difference in the classroom.

Many students who struggle in school are struggling because everything is moving too quickly for them. This does not mean they are not smart. It simply means they need extra time to think.

Here is something you can do to figure out whether this is a problem for your child. Think about Mr. Rogers and mimic his speech pattern with your child. See if this helps him to understand what you are asking him to do. You can also limit the number of instructions you give at one time.

For example, these instructions move too quickly and include too much information at one time: “Go to the kitchen and get the silverware for dinner. Don’t forget we will need a soup spoon tonight. And use the blue napkins when you set the table.” 

It is better to divide this into shorter, slower (Mr. Rogers speed), separate statements. “Get the silverware for dinner.” (Pause) “We need soup spoons.” (Pause) “Use the blue napkins.”

Some children who think slowly never get a chance to answer a question before someone else answers it. This can happen at home with a brother or sister. It also happens in school. Parents and teachers have to deliberately structure the situation so that everyone gets a chance to speak. When I teach, I often say, “I’m going to ask a question. (Pause) I do not want anyone to answer. (Pause) Think about the answer. (Pause) Give me a thumbs-up if you know it.”

If you feel that slowing down when you speak helps your child, let her teacher know what you have discovered. Accommodations like this are simple to do and can make a big difference in school.

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Successful Study Habits: How To Highlight Effectively

Highlighting can be a great study strategy, especially in the early stages of learning. (It is limited, of course, to worksheets or books students own.) It can help you find information later to review it or make study cards for in-depth study.

Most people think highlighting is easy. However, I have seen many students who don’t understand why they highlight. They also don’t know how. Sometimes, these students highlight almost everything on the page, which defeats the purpose.

If your child does this, here are some steps to take to help him learn how to highlight in a purposeful and meaningful way. 

Discuss the following with him:


  • Why do we highlight? Lead him to understand that highlighting makes it easy to find the most important information later when he needs it to study. If too much of the page is highlighted, it is not easier to find something. It might even make it more difficult. Highlighting needs to be used carefully and purposefully.


  • What information is important? Discuss possibilities such as names of new characters in a fiction book, new vocabulary words, or a brand new concept that seems important. Highlighting can also help when learning how to do a difficult concept like using negative numbers in math. Many students highlight the negative signs when doing algebra because they are important and easy to overlook.


Once your child understands what highlighting is for, the next step is to practice highlighting something specific. For example, when reading a literature book he could highlight the name of new characters introduced in the chapter. Or in a science textbook, he could highlight the vocabulary words (just the word because the definition will probably be nearby). He could highlight key words in the directions given at the beginning of a worksheet. (Circle, solve, check your work, multiply, etc.) Try to find something that is normally difficult for him and use highlighting to make it easier.

I would love to know what study strategy is most helpful for your children. I am always looking for new ideas to try!

More on study skills:

What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

Teach Your Kids How To Study


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The Importance of Teaching Students To Write By Hand

Ever since writing my earlier blog post about whether we really need to teach cursive handwriting, Do Children Still Need to Learn Cursive?, I have been thinking more about it. Many parents are concerned that their children are not being taught cursive writing any more, and they wonder whether it is going to be a problem.

Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of special education and reading and the area coordinator of the graduate program in learning disabilities at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, addresses this topic in a great article at LDOnline.org called “The Importance of Teaching Handwriting.”

She brings up some points I never thought about before. For example, when children are learning to form the letters on the page, they are also practicing the sound the letter makes. Most likely this is occurring silently, although some teachers may have the children say and sound out the letter as they write. This sound-symbol relationship is required before children can become fluent readers. Therefore you might say that learning to write helps develop other language skills.

 Another point Spear-Swerling makes is that children need to learn to write in manuscript—printing instead of cursive writing—since that is the form they will most often read. One problem with manuscript, however, in terms of helping a child in school, is that many children make several strokes with their pencil when printing each letter. This takes more time than using a single stroke, which is more often done in cursive. Legibility and speed are important for school success since students often need to take notes, respond to questions on tests, or write down their assignments rather quickly; and, they need to be able to read what they wrote.

 In my post, I never really said what I thought. I believe we need to teach our students how to write legibly and quickly. We should teach manuscript first since they are learning to read manuscript letters first. Then we should teach cursive to see if the fluency of cursive writing can help them write faster. If they later migrate to manuscript (or some combination of manuscript and cursive), we should allow it as long as they can write legibly.

 Legible handwriting needs to be automatic as well, so that it does not occupy thinking space while working on higher level writing tasks. Read my earlier post about Helping Kids by Reducing Demands on Working Memory, to understand the importance of this.

 Someday, there may not be a need for everyone to be able to write by hand. However, until we no longer need it, we have to teach it. We also need to teach our students how to use the keyboard efficiently. My earlier blog on selecting typing software is about how to learn to type. I also wrote a longer article, Learning the Keyboard, about the importance of students’ learning keyboarding.


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The Most Important Question You Should Ask Your Child’s Teacher, Right Now!

In the beginning of May, I highly recommend that all parents ask their child’s teacher a very important question: “Is my child on grade level?” If the answer is no, there is still enough time left in the school year to take action.

Many parents ask, “What can I do to help him get to where he needs to be?”  Here are five easy tasks to help your child finish kindergarten, 1st grade, or 2nd grade on grade-level, and ready for advancement:


1. Make reading, every night, a priority. Ask her teacher for some grade-level appropriate books that could be borrowed from the classroom or school library. Or, once you know the correct level, get books from your local public library.  Pick a time each evening to read together, for at least fifteen minutes.


2. Start a vocabulary “piggy bank.” When an unfamiliar word is encountered in a story, write the word in a notebook. Next to the word help your child write a simple definition. Once a week read the new words and definitions to “count” how the bank is growing.


3. Write stories. Have your child draw a picture and write a simple story about it. Connect the pictures and stories to events in your family. Visiting relatives, going to the zoo, running errands on the weekends are good subjects for stories.  They help children make a personal connection to their writing. Keep the stories in binder for easy reference.


4. Practice math counting, backwards. Have your kindergarten child count forward and backward from 1-50; have your 1st grader count backwards from 1-100; and have your 2nd grader count backwards from 1-200. Confidently counting forward and backward is important because it makes simple addition and subtraction easier.


5. Connect to 10. Connecting to “10” helps a child know math facts more efficiently. Most children can easily count by 10’s, starting on 10 for 10, 20, 30. But practicing “off the decade” by tens is immensely helpful. Start at 3, for example, and add 10, for 3, 13, 23, 33. Do this type of counting both forward and backward.


These last few weeks of school are a very important time in a young child’s educational development. This can be the time of year when things start to “click.” With a little help, your child can finish the school year confidently and securely on grade-level.


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Have Kids Roll the Dice to Learn Place Value

Most kindergarten and 1st grade students can easily understand single-digit numbers (0-9.)

However, knowing double-digit numbers, from 10-99, often is confusing to young math students. 

Understanding “place value” is a key mathematical skill. Place value simply means the position of the numeral in a two or more digit number, and how the position of the numeral affects the overall value.

It helps a child know the difference between a “13” and a “31,” for example. In kindergarten, the focus is on double-digit value or the “ones” place and the “tens” place. By the end of 1st grade, place value is extended to three-digit numbers, or the “ones,” “tens,” and “hundreds” place(s).

Here’s an easy and fun activity to help your child understand place value when creating two-digit numbers. You will need a pair of dice, a pencil, and a piece of paper.



  • Fold the paper in half, lengthwise. Write “Tens Place” at the top of the left hand column, and “Ones Place” at the top of the right hand column.
  • Have your child roll the dice.  If she rolls a “5” and a “2” ask, “What is the smallest number you can make using those two digits? (25) “What’s the largest number you can make using the “5” and “2?” (52)                    
  • Have her write the 25, with the “2” in the “tens” place column and the “5” in the “ones” place column.  Then, write the 52 with the “5” in the “tens “ place and the “2” in the “ones” place. Keep rolling to see how many different combinations can be made.


Children love this game! Roll the dice and play often to help your child easily understand the structure and value of two-digit numbers.

When she’s easily mastered the two-digit numbers increase the difficulty. Fold the paper in thirds, lengthwise. Label the columns “Hundreds Place” on the left, “Tens Place” in the middle, and “Ones Place” on the right. Play with three dice to create the smallest and largest three-digit numbers.


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A "Synonym" is Not Something You Put on Toast!

 A few years ago, when I was introducing word categories to my 1st grade students, I asked if anyone knew what a “synonym” was. I called on one student who was enthusiastically waving his hand. “Oh yes,” he said. “I know, I know. ‘Synonym’ is what you put on toast with butter!”

 I couldn’t help but smile as I started my lesson.

Three categories of words can make creative writing more exciting and interesting for your young child. They are: antonyms, synonyms, and homophones.

Antonyms are words with opposite meanings.  Day and night, up and down, and stop and go, are three examples.  They are important words to know when writing, because knowing opposites automatically doubles your child’s vocabulary! Children as young as 3 years old can grasp the concept of opposites…and love to recite them for you.

Synonyms are words that have the same meaning. Small and little, happy and glad, large and big are all synonyms. Knowing synonyms can help an emerging writer avoid using the same words over and over again in a story.

Homophones are words that sound alike, but have different definitions and spellings. One and won, two and too, days and daze are some examples. “Dear Deer:  A Book of Homophones” by Gene Barretta is a great story. It uses homophones and animal characters in a comical way to reinforce the concept.


Understanding different word choices can often turn a reluctant writer into a creative and confident one! For more reading and writing practice, see our printables for Grade 1-2.

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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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Selecting Typing Software: Which is Best for Your Child?

Parents often call me to find out what typing software I recommend they get for their child. Unfortunately, this is a really difficult question! It really isn’t so much what software to buy as it is what your child does with it and how often they practice.

Here is what I recommend.

  •  You do not necessarily need to buy software. There are free typing tutor programs on the Internet that work just fine. CNet has several available for free and each has user ratings for you to see before you download the software.
  • It is very important to look at the screen (not hands) and use the correct fingers when typing. My goal teaching typing is to have students type well enough so that they do not have to think about frequently used words. If they need to type a word like “the,” their fingers should move automatically. If they use a different finger each time they type, they will never be able to do this. If they are able to type the most frequently used words automatically, it will reduce their spelling errors because many of these frequently used words do not follow the normal spelling rules. It will also increase their overall speed.
  •  Students should not be allowed to play typing games until they can type all the letters on the keyboard without looking down. Typing games encourage them to watch their hands and use the wrong fingers.
  •  Have your child practice 10-20 of the most frequently used words every day. Any word processor will work for this activity. I make a game of this by seeing how many times they can type each word in 10 seconds. It can be encouraging to keep the data each day to see progress over time. They need to look at the screen while they type, though, not their hands.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Typing correctly does not come easily. It takes a lot of work, discipline to use the correct fingers with their eyes on the screen, and many hours at the keyboard.

 Most students cannot learn to type simply by using software. They will navigate to the games that do indeed teach them. However, what they learn from a typing game is if I put my hands like this and quickly type as many letters as I can without thinking, I will do better. The game is won, but typing skills are lost in the process.

 The bottom line is this: Software alone cannot change your child into a good typist. They need some adult guidance to keep them on track. It is worth the effort, however, because no matter what they do in the future, they will probably need to know their way around a keyboard.

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Kindergarten Math: The Common Core Standards and 4 Geometry Activities

Math being taught in kindergarten classrooms today includes geometry as children learn about different geometric shapes.

This is due to the establishment of the Common Core Standards for Education, which was developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

These standards affect both English and math curricula. The Common Core Standards are specific, purposeful instruction to promote student understanding and achievement in grades kindergarten through 12.

Simply put, the Standards are the way to ensure that American students will have access to a quality, equitable education.

In kindergarten, an important element of the Common Core Standards for Mathematics is the recognition of geometric shapes, and how they relate to the physical world. The ability to identify, name, and describe 2- and 3-dimensional shapes, in kindergarten, is a distinct advantage in understanding math concepts.

Some examples of 2-dimensional shapes are circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons, and a rhombus (diamond shape.) Some examples of 3-dimensional shapes are cones, cylinders, cubes, and spheres. Have your child learn some of these shapes by using SchoolFamily.com's Geometry Printables.

In addition, here are 4 easy activities to help your kindergarten child understand and make connections to these math shapes:

  • Purchase an inexpensive Hula Hoop. Use this as a large circle for spatial games. In the back yard, lay the Hula Hoop flat. Help your child practice moving inside, outside, above, below, beside, and near the hoop.  Have him practice until he can easily follow the spatial direction. For fun, let him practice the correct spatial words by giving you directions to move about the hoop!
  • Use Play-Doh, rolled into long “snakes.” Form the snakes into circles, squares, triangles, etc. Talk about the shapes that have “corners and sides.” Talk about what makes some shapes different, and what makes some shapes alike.
  • Build shapes, with sides and corners using Popsicle sticks. Glue them to 8 pieces of ½”x 11” colored construction paper. Print the words naming the shapes on the bottom of the paper. Be sure to use lowercase letters. To construct a circle, run a steady bead of glue around the middle of a piece of construction paper, giving the circle about a 5” diameter. Cut a piece of yarn or string and set it on the glue circle. Let it dry thoroughly overnight.  Hang up all the different-shaped papers in your child’s room, where she can easily see and reference them.
  • Go on a three dimensional shape “hunt” in your house. Look for tennis or soccer balls (spheres,) sealed soup, tuna or other cans (cylinders,) and cones and cubes. Offer a treat, sticker, or some other reward for each shape found!

Knowing geometric shapes can help your young child better understand his physical world—and be on the right track in kindergarten math.

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School District Signs Agreement to Prevent Bullying of Gay Teens

 A public school district in Minnesota made news this week when officials there ended a federal investigation, and a civil lawsuit filed by six teenage students, by agreeing to a series of changes that will make schools take notice and get involved when gay students are bullied.

 The New York Times article reported that over a 2-year period, the school district had nine students commit suicide after the teens were bullied because they were gay—or were perceived to be gay. Despite these tragedies, the school maintained a position of “neutrality,” whereby teachers had to be “neutral” on questions from students regarding sexual orientation. In other words, the teachers were prevented from being allowed to show support to, or prevent bullying of, students who identified themselves as gay or questioning their orientation.

 The new agreement was signed by officials with the Anoka-Hennepin School District and Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the six students who sued the district.

 Tenets of the agreement include the following:

  • The district’s “neutrality” policy rescinded and replaced by a policy to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of students regardless of race, sexual orientation, disabilities, or other factors”
  • Strengthen ways to prevent, detect, and punish bullying based on gender or sexual orientation
  • Hire a full-time “harassment prevention” official
  • Increase availability of mental health counseling
  • Identify harassment “hot spots” in and outside of the middle and high schools

 According to the Times’ article, conservative Christian parents in the district who had formed a group called the Parent’s Action League in order to keep the neutrality policy, called the agreement a “travesty.”

 Does your school district have specific policies for preventing the bullying of gay students?  Are teachers allowed to answer students’ questions about sexual orientation?

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What Is a Language Learning Disability (LLD)?

Language is more than the words we speak to one another. There are many parts of the language process and if all are working as expected, we give little thought to it. But if a person is struggling with language, they may have a language learning disability (LLD).

Children with a language disability struggle with language in a variety of ways. Some have trouble saying what they want to say: They have trouble finding the right words, talk really fast, have an unusual cadence when they speak, or simply sit there trying to figure out how to get their point across. While I have worked with children like this, it is more common that the issue is related to writing their thoughts on paper. They may have no trouble understanding or telling me the answer, but if I ask them to write it down they can’t do it. Children who cannot express what they know either orally or in writing are said to have a problem with expressive language.

Oral and written language impairments are easy to see. But, when the language problem happens inside a child’s brain, it is harder to diagnose. For example, some children have a hard time processing what you say to them or what they read. They may be slow processors or struggle with the syntax of language. They may not understand the subtle differences in expression, especially if there is sarcasm involved.  They might have trouble organizing their thoughts, storing them in memory, or pulling them back out of memory. At times we refer to these children as having a receptive language problem because they have difficulty taking in language and making sense of it. But, it is really more than just not understanding what others say, or what they read. It can also involve thoughts generated by the child himself.

Dyslexia is a specific language learning disability that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. If you want to learn more about it, read my earlier post, How Do I Know If My Child is Dyslexic?

Language is extremely complex. Therefore, disabilities that relate to it are also complex. LDOnline offers an excellent explanation of a variety of language disorders and how they affect a child in school.

If you suspect your child has a language learning disability, you need the help of a psychologist or a speech and language pathologist who is trained in diagnosing and treating these disorders. There is no quick fix, but with proper help these children can be very successful in school and life.

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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