SchoolFamily Voices

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

Perseverance, Not "Math Brain," Determines Success in Math

There is exciting new research about how we learn math. Scientists at Stanford University now believe there is no such thing as having a “math brain.” In other words, their research suggests that everyone can learn math! This is contrary to common belief and supports my efforts through the years to encourage kids to say, “I’m not good at math—yet!” (instead of just stating they cannot learn math). This research suggests some interesting things about how we learn.

First of all, we learn math by doing it. The most interesting thing, though, is how it happens. When we are working on a math problem and make a mistake, synapses in the brain fire even if we are not aware that we made a mistake. Then, when we discover the mistake and correct it, the synapses fire again. The new pathways created when the synapses fire are learning. So, it is by doing math and making mistakes that we learn. Encourage your child to keep trying to figure out his math homework and let him know that mistakes are not only OK, they are also necessary!

Second, the world’s best mathematicians do math slowly. Your child should realize that it is OK to spend time thinking about the problems she is working on. She should not expect to finish her work quickly. Encourage her to slow down and to think about how she is working her math problems. Ask her if there might be another way to do the same problem. Talk about math with her. Ask her to explain to you how she is doing the problems so you will also know how to do them.

Finally, failure (making lots of mistakes) is necessary when learning math. Your child needs to have the mindset that working hard is what makes the difference in math, not necessarily getting every problem correct. He should learn to persevere; he should talk with other students about how they did the problems and not give up quickly. He should refer to his textbook and notes.  After all that effort, if he still cannot do the work, he needs to be encouraged to seek his teacher’s help. Even so, he should be thinking, “If I keep trying, I will eventually figure out how to do this.” It is important that he believes in himself when learning math.

Dr. Jo Boaler and her students at Stanford have produced an online course for students that will help them become good math learners. Check out this free course at the YouCubed website. Each lesson takes only about 15 minutes to complete, and it is well worth the effort. I recommend that parents take the course with their children. Remember, someone doesn’t have to be a “math person” to learn math. We can all be good math learners if we take our time, believe in ourselves, persevere, and make lots of mistakes along the way.

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Strategies for Managing Personal Electronics at School

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.

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Fun and Easy Help With Basic Math

I often rely on two of my old favorite teaching aids in helping young students with basic math.  A common deck of playing cards and a child’s hand full of U.S. coins can work wonders in helping students understand the value of numbers.

Children must first be able to recognize the four main U.S. coins (penny, nickel, dime, and quarter). First, download my "Coin Match Value Game"— it's a perfect way for young students to learn coin recognition, while subtly learning coin value.

Or you can use a deck of regular playing cards:

  • Take a king, a ten card, a five card, and an ace, of the same suit, from the deck.
  • Put the card face up on a table.
  • Have your child sit facing the cards.
  • Have him place a quarter on the king, a dime on the 10 card, a nickel on the five card, and a penny on the ace.
  • Let him go through the rest of the coins and place them below the appropriate cards.

As your child gets older, a further expansion of this game is to play “substitute the coins.” Once all the coins are placed on their proper cards, use the coin match value game to help your child “substitute” coins for equal numeric value. Here’s how:

  • Start by introducing a new card, a queen from a deck of cards, to act as a “bank.” Put the queen off to the side.
  • Have him take a dime from the “ten card pile” and place it on the bank.
  • He must then replace the dime with coins from the other card piles to equal 10 (for example, a nickel and five pennies, two nickels or 10 pennies).
  • He can invest a quarter into the bank by replacing it with a variety of coins. The coins get moved around, but the total value of the coins, including the coins in the bank, stays the same.
  • Play often, until your child can easily make coin substitutions without adult help.

These games are wonderful learning tools. In addition, they can be great fun. This is especially true if, at the end of the games, the young student gets to keep all the coins!

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Teaching Kids To Be Honorable Students

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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When Being a Perfectionist Is Difficult

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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Strategies To Manage a Rotating Class Schedule

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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4 Ways To Help Your Child “Relate” to Reading

It is well-known that good readers make personal connections to stories. These self-to-text connections help children deepen their understanding of what is being read.  Below are four concepts to help your child to relate to stories that he is listening to, or reading.

Prior knowledge:

Life experiences can help build your child’s prior knowledge for reading comprehension. For example, when you take your child to the beach, lake, zoo, park, or local farm, you increase her understanding of different settings in life. In education we call this building schema. Simply defined, schema is the database of life experiences.

Family connections:
Encourage reading connected to family life. For example, if you have a family pet, read books together about dogs, cats, fish, etc. She’ll understand how owners take care of pets, and how pets add to family life.

Foster interests:
If he loves dinosaurs, generate opportunities to delve deeply into that fascinating subject. Get different dinosaur books from your local library. If possible, visit a museum with dinosaur displays. Get some small toy dinosaurs, and help him learn about the different types of dinosaurs and their characteristics.

Compare and contrast:
When children compare and contrast, they are simply thinking about how things are alike, and how they are different. Together you might read a fiction book, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, by Norman Bridwell, and compare and contrast the story to a nonfiction book about a real dog. One non-fiction example I’ve read with my class is The Bravest Dog Ever, The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford.  How are Clifford and the Balto alike? How are they different? Encourage your child to list at least three examples for each.

Practicing these four simple enhancement steps will help your child become a good, comprehensive reader!

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Different Kinds of Smart

by Elizabeth S. Leaver

At some point not too long ago, a piece along the lines of “see that silent mom who isn’t really participating while everyone else is talking about her child’s achievements” made the rounds on social media. It was a bit painful to read, because that mom is me.

It’s not because I’m not proud of my son. I am. It’s because he doesn’t, at 17, always meet the generic measures of success for his age. He’s an average, not particularly motivated student. He’s not an athlete. And despite society’s allegedly growing recognition of kids’ different strengths and abilities, I don’t always see much evidence of a true shift in perception of what makes a child smart, or brag-worthy, beyond academic success and being good at sports.

My own story couldn’t have been more different. I was a highly self-motivated student whose parents never had to remind me to do my homework or study. I had the grades to match, and my report cards were an enormous source of pride for my parents. I constantly overheard, and was told, that I was smart.

Yet as time has gone on and my son has grown, I’ve realized that that type of success didn’t actually make me “smarter” than he is. I was simply good at school, the way another person might be good at singing. And because I was good at it, it wasn’t hard for me to be “successful” at it, for the most part. As such, I’ve come to feel that tying that adjective—“smart”— to kids’ academic lives alone does them a true disservice. What if kids were all judged by another single measure, like, for example, their ability to paint? How many people would be considered “smart” if that was the gauge? (I certainly wouldn’t have.)

Where I sometimes struggled outside of the classroom, my son is socially capable in ways I wasn’t until I was much older. He’s quick-witted and well-spoken. He’s a fair and kind listener to his friends—I can see turning to him for insight and advice in the not-too-distant future. He is able to put voice to his feelings in a way many grown men cannot. He’s a talented, and largely self-taught, musician. And these are just a few of the things he is much smarter at than I was.

Academic achievement is certainly worthy, and I don’t wish I had come of age differently; I’m proud to think back on my hard work, and I think kids who work hard in school do deserve to feel proud. But all kids, all people, have strengths that should be celebrated. My son is every bit as smart as I was—whatever may have been on our report cards.

Elizabeth S. Leaver is a senior editor at School Family Media, SchoolFamily.com's parent company. She lives in the greater Boston area with her family.

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Note-Taking Tips for Back to School

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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10 Tips To Ease the Back-to-School Transition

Ideally, summer vacation has been relaxing, less stressful, and more laid back for your child. But now that August is halfway through, is she ready to gear up and start a new school year?

Here are 10 easy ideas to help your child boost confidence, brush up on skills, and ease back into a school routine.

For students about to enter kindergarten:

  • Practice alphabet recognition. Review the letters as partners (both upper and lowercase together). Teaching the letters as partners is easier—your child essentially learns 26 letters at once, rather than 52 if they are taught separately. Keep practicing until he can identify them randomly out of sequence, as well as in sequence.
  • Make sure she can legibly print her name. An easy way to practice this is to use a highlighter—any color except yellow, as yellow is too light. On a piece of white paper, print your child’s name, starting with a capital letter first and the rest lowercase. With a sharpened pencil, have your child trace her name inside the highlighted letters. The highlight provides a clear border for her to see how the letters are formed. The pencil can easily be seen inside the highlight color. Gradually eliminate one or two of the highlighted letters until she can easily print her name without them.
  • Practice counting orally to 20. Practice both forward and backward, as that will help him understand simple addition and subtraction.
  • For safety reasons, make sure your child knows his full name, address (street number and name, town, and state), and a phone number where you can be reached.

For 1st grade students:

For students entering 2nd grade:

  • Practice counting forward and backwards to 100. This is a great activity to do in the car.
  • Help her distinguish the sounds of long and short vowels and understand that adding the silent (magic) “e” at the end changes the vowel from short to long. Can becomes cane, kit becomes kite, etc.)
  • When reading stories together ask her to identify characters, setting, and the main idea of the story to check comprehension. Help her go back and reference the story, if needed.

Simple review and practice of basic skills helps your child gain confidence and get ready for a new school year, all while having some late summer fun with you!

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Using Minecraft as a Learning Tool

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

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

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

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Math Fun for Summer (or Anytime)

Bring math into your child’s daily life this summer to keep skills current. Here are three simple and fun activities to practice math that your child learned this past school year.

Here is a geometry activity that I’ve done many times with my 1st grade students. They love the hands-on practice of making real shapes.

  • You’ll need a container of plastic drinking straws and some bendable twist-ties from plastic storage or trash bags.

  • Use the straws and ties to construct two-dimensional shapes (polygons). For a triangle, use three straws and three ties.

  • Connect the ends of each straw by inserting a tie about halfway into one straw, and then the other half of the tie into the next straw. They will bend at the corners to form and hold the shape of a perfect triangle.

  • To construct a square and a rhombus (diamond), your child will need four straws and four ties.

  • For a rectangle, six straws and six ties are needed.

For addition practice try a game called “add ’em up”:

  • You’ll need a deck of playing cards with all face cards removed. Use the aces to represent numeral one. This can be for two or more players.

  • Shuffle the deck and put it in a pile, numbers down.

  • Players take turns, picking two cards each. They add the number value of the cards to get a total. The player with the highest sum wins all the cards. To break a tie, each player takes one more card and adds that to the total.

  • When the pile is gone each player counts their cards. The player with the highest number of cards wins.

For telling time:

  • Call attention to clocks you may see around your neighborhood. For example, look for analog or digital clocks on banks, stores, billboards, and other community places. Ask him to tell you the time he sees displayed. Help him, if needed.

  • At baseball, soccer ,or other timed games that you watch, help her read and understand how much time is left in the half, or until the end of the game. Usually, these clocks count “down” so this can be a good time to help her practice counting backwards.

Try to find other opportunities involving simple math skills to challenge your young student as often as possible.


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Make the Most of Your Child’s Intrinsic Knowledge

Earlier this summer, my husband Brian and I took our 20-month-old granddaughter to her neighborhood playground. She loves to climb up the slide ladder and giggle her way down the slide. She was wearing a new baseball cap that Brian had brought her. As she climbed up the ladder, the brim of the cap was getting caught in the rung just above. She quickly stopped, looked up, lifted her hand and turned the cap around, so the brim was in the back. Then she was able to keep right on climbing! I was amazed at how quickly she figured out the problem and solved it. When I told that story to an educator friend, he reminded me of what good intrinsic knowledge she demonstrated.

Intrinsic knowledge is simply defined as occurring as a natural process, or instinctively knowing something. Often, it’s what you know without even realizing you know it! For example, in infants it’s the startle reflex or being able to self-soothe and go back to sleep. In older children, one example is balancing when learning to ride a bike.

Intrinsic knowledge often leads to intrinsic motivation. For example, you might have a child who naturally just loves to run—and runs everywhere. That’s the child who will probably enjoy learning the math involved in using a timer or stopwatch. Or your child might be that quiet observer who hears and understands much more than you realize. He’s the one who might say a few weeks or months later, “Remember you said we can go to the zoo the next time we visit Uncle Frank.”

Awareness of and building on intrinsic knowledge and motivation can accelerate your child’s learning. Here are ways you can help:

  • Create play environments with lots of opportunities to practice visual, auditory and hands-on learning. Tools like books, puzzles, Legos, paper, markers, crayons, listening, music, dance, and board games tap into all types of learners. Observe your child in this play environment and see what she naturally gravitates toward.
  • Help her activate and build on prior knowledge and natural curiosity. For example, if he’s a dinosaur lover help him use and expand that knowledge to reading, writing, math and science.

When a child has a genuine interest, he is more likely to do well and stay with a task until finished. Recognizing and making the most of your child’s intrinsic knowledge will prepare her well for a lifetime of learning.

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Rainy Day Science Fun

Oh no! It’s finally summer vacation, and the weather forecast is calling for rain all day. But don’t let a rainy summer day spoil any fun. Use it as an opportunity to talk about and examine the wonderful natural process of rain.

Start this science dialogue by asking your child “What do you think causes rain?” Then do a simple experiment that I’ve done with 1st grade classes over the years. Help your child create indoor rain!


  • a small, plastic sandwich-size baggie
  • clear tape
  • a small amount of water


  • Let your child put a small amount of water (about ¼ cup) into the bag
  • Zip it shut until it’s sealed
  • Use the clear adhesive tape to attach the sealed bag to a window that gets a fair amount of sun
  • When the rain stops, and the sun is shining again, the sun will warm the water in the bag
  • The heat will cause the water to evaporate, and small drops will form on the inside surface of the bag
  • As the drops grow and get heavier, gravity will cause them to drip down. He’ll then see how it starts to “rain” inside the bag!

Children get really excited by this experiment. It’s a perfect opportunity to segue into what happens in nature, and explain about the water cycle.

Just like the water in the bag, the sun heats up oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds and even puddles. The water evaporates and collects in the atmosphere as moisture particles grow into clouds. When the clouds get too full, the drops become heavy and fall back to the earth, creating rain. Then when the sun comes out, the process starts all over again.

Here are five books with great pictures and vocabulary that help youngsters understand the water cycle.  Most should be available from your local library. 

  • Water Goes Round: The Water Cycle, by Robin Koontz
  • All the Water in the Word, by George Ella Lyon,
  • Magic School Bus Series, Wet All Over, by Joanna Cole
  • The Water Cycle, by Helen Frost
  • A Drop of Water, by Gordon Morrison

A simple, hands-on activity like this makes understanding science very real for a young child.

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Move Learning Away From the Classroom This Summer

Summer break has started, or will very shortly. It’s a perfect time to take those classroom skills and apply them to different, more relaxed summer venues. By keeping the learning process active, you can help your child subtly practice new strategies and avoid the “summer slide.” By engaging in some fun educational activities this summer, you can help her be fully prepared when the new school year begins.

For reading:

  • Check with your local library. Most libraries offer free relaxed summer reading programs, with creative motivational prizes for students.
  • Leave electronic devices home when going to the beach, lake or pool. Pack some favorite books and puzzles for quiet time on the blanket.

For writing:

  • Take pictures when on vacation. Use a photo as a “story-starter” to help him write about a vacation experience. Help him paste the picture at the top of a lined paper. He can tell the who, what, where, why, when, and how of the story by describing the picture. One picture for each page can create a lovely vacation memory book when put together!
  • For penmanship, have your child use some unsharpened pencils to practice letter and word writing in the sand at the beach, or in a sandbox. The thickness of the sand, when she prints the letters or words, enhances the feel of how the letters are formed.

For math and science:

  • Take a few different-sized and -shaped containers when going to the beach, pond, or pool. Have him put some water in a pail. Then have him pour water from the pail into the different containers. Help him understand that liquids (the water) take on the different shapes of what holds them. Have him pour the water out, and see what happens when the liquid is in the sand.
  • Have her collect 10 sticks of different sizes in the backyard. Or, collect 10 shells or rocks at the beach. Have her line them up from smallest to biggest or biggest to smallest to compare and contrast size. She can also use them to practice multiple ways to make 10 (1+9, 5+5, 6+4, etc.).

These simple yet fun summer activities reinforce the fact that learning is a continuous process, and takes place just about everywhere!

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Encourage Teens' Writing During the Summer

Recently, a student shared a poem he had written with me. I was totally amazed at how beautiful and thoughtful it was. He was involved in a creative writing class, and the poem was an assignment. This made me think about the summer as a time to expand writing skills in a fun way. Teens could see writing as something to enjoy instead of a chore to do for school.

Often, teens get stuck on the first step when trying to write—thinking of something to say. This is true for all writers, not just beginning writers! If your child feels this way, my advice is to encourage her to write about her passions. If she has something she really wants to say, it is much easier to get going. It is also important that she does not feel that her work has to be perfect the first time through. I often write, rewrite, let it sit overnight, and revise again before submitting my work. Six Ways to Start the Writing Process might help her get started.

Creative thoughts often come to us when we are relaxed and not focused on any one thing. It might help your child to get away from electronic devices that interrupt his thinking. Many writers say their ideas come to them while in the shower first thing in the morning when they are well-rested. He could take an afternoon walk in the park or sit outside one night and watch for a shooting star. The trick is to give himself plenty of down time when there is nothing scheduled except relax and enjoy life.

Encourage your children to take some time this summer to explore their writing potential. They might find that they enjoy getting their thoughts down on paper. Your children might find out that they love sharing their passions through writing. This is especially true if there is an easy way to share what they write with the world! Teen Ink is a website devoted to sharing writing, reviews, photos, videos, and art submitted by teens. There are more than 65,000 works published on the site. It is fun to read the work submitted by other teens and to rate their work. Perhaps your child will be inspired to submit work for publication this summer, and she will begin to see herself as a writer with important things to say.

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Sensory Activities Sharpen Skills and Encourage Creativity

Sensory games can be a fun way for any child to learn. Here are three easy activities to encourage your child to learn in different ways:

Heighten his listening comprehension with simple household objects. For example, use a set of keys, the kitchen faucet, a bouncing ball, or the vacuum. Ask him to close his eyes and listen for the noise you are going to make. Then, briefly shake the keys and ask him to identify the object that made the sound. Once he can easily identify single objects, try two, then three to fine-tune listening skills.

Focus on the tactile sense. Make a “Guess-It” bag. Gather a paper grocery bag or pillowcase and collect some objects that are familiar to your child. Examples can be her favorite small stuffed animal, an apple, a toy car, a sock, etc. Hide an object, one at a time, in the bag. Have her close her eyes, reach into the bag, and identify the object with her sense of touch. When she guesses correctly, encourage her to describe just how she knew.

Help him think about familiar objects in different ways. Show your child a straw, a pencil, and a fork. Ask “Which item would work just as well holding the opposite end?” Ask “What else, around the house, might work just as well upside down? (A slice of bread, a baseball, a piece of cheese, an orange, etc.) Or have him think of different ways to use familiar objects. His soccer trophy could be used as a doorstop; a drinking glass could hold and display a shell collection. 

Wondering about, then discovering new possibilities, is a great way to encourage curiosity. This will expand a child’s ability to be a creative, divergent thinker!

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Create Word Rainbows To Help Young Spellers

This year in my 1st grade class, I have been using a terrific new concept passed along to me by my colleague, Kathy. This idea greatly helps our students master their weekly spelling assignments. In both of our 1st grade classes, we have a reading station called “Rainbow Words,” which is a colorful, hands-on way for students to practice and remember vocabulary. I noticed that students who were having difficulty recognizing letters, or hearing sounds in the words, had much better success when they used this concept of color-coded individual letters in words. This would be a simple activity to help your young student practice words at home, as well.

You’ll need:

  • A small package of markers or crayons, in the basic eight colors of red, blue, yellow, brown, orange, green, purple, and black
  • Lined paper

Here’s how:

  • You should start very simply. For example, if your child is learning short vowel “a” words such as at, cat, fan, ran, cap, have her use the red marker to print all the “a” vowels in the words. The beginning and final consonants can be any different color of her choice. This way she will easily recognize the vowel in the words, when printing is complete.
  • Have him practice his weekly spelling or sight words by using a different color to print each letter in the word, creating a “rainbow word.” 
  • If your child is more advanced, have her use one specific color to identify digraphs (th, sh, ch, wh), blends (st, sl, pl, cr, etc.,,) or endings in words (ed, ing, ly, etc.) with the other letters in the word.

Children are naturally creative. Using a different color to print each letter in a word helps a child easily recognize those letters and parts of words. This is a great way to improve reading fluency and increase comprehension…while creating word “rainbows”!

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Help Students Have a Strong Finish to the Year

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

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

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

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

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Tricks To Help Kids Manage Electronic Distractions in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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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