Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Playdates Turn Into Pub Crawls - How to Stay Connected to Your Grown Children

The holidays are over, the decorations are put away, and my two grown children have now returned to their own homes. When they were small, holiday activities included playing with new toys, sledding down snowy hills, cutting paper snowflakes, and Christmas stories before bed.  Now with their respective ages at 24 and 30, my husband and I had to "up our game" to ensure that we made the most of our time together.

Before their arrival on Christmas Eve, my husband and I brainstormed a list of fun things to do with our kids so we could all enjoy each other and have fun together.   We posted the list prominently so all of us could add our own ideas to it.   Some of the ideas didn't quite work out as planned. There was the Christmas Eve drive through a local park to enjoy the "Greatest Light Show in the Midwest", which turned out to be a massive traffic jam with most of the light show coming from the red tail lights of other cars stuck in the same holiday hell.  We had added cross country skiing and snowshoeing to the list to provide outdoor exercise, fresh air, and beautiful, snowy Michigan scenery, but due to a pre-Christmas temperature spike, all the snow melted.

In spite of the early "fails" described above, we did manage to have fun together making memories, learning about each other, and having fun together.  Below are some of the things we enjoyed, and other ideas that may make the list for next year.

Escape the Room Challenge - We were locked into a room and had to work together as a team to find and decode clues that led us to solve a puzzle and escape from the room in under an hour.  Escape the Room challenges are appearing in many different cities, and have different themes, such as the game Clue, murder mysteries, and gameshows.  We had fun working together solving a few puzzles, but in the end, had to concede defeat.

Cooking - Each of us has a specialty dish that we like to cook, and holiday time is a great time for sharing our recipes.  Our son, Joe cooked up delicious meatballs in a sweet barbeque sauce, and fresh guacamole.  Daughter, Katie is a master of meringues, and made these delicious cookies in three different flavors.  I provided the Christmas cookies, and my husband "The Grillmaster" grilled lamb and shrimp. 

Work Out - We each have our own exercise routine which we shared with each other. Our kids worked out with us using our favorite hatha yoga routine, and introduced us to weight lifting and cardio kickboxing.

Local Bars - Our local bars in the Detroit area have a wealth of entertainment options including trivia nights, pool tables, darts, and music.  Some also host wine or beer tasting nights.  We enjoyed listening to local rock and blues bands, drinking craft cocktails, and challenging each other to several games of pool while sampling some Detroit brews.

Games -  We spent a few cozy evenings in by playing Scrabble, the Game of Knowledge, and euchre.

Here are some ideas that made the list but didn't fit into the schedule this year.  We'll keep them on deck for next Christmas.

Family History - Have a few photo albums sitting out on a table or watch home movies to relive memories of earlier years.  Purchase each child a collage style frame, and have them select photos to display in their own home.

Take a Class - Some grocery markets host cooking classes, or workshops on making a holiday centerpiece.  Furniture stores may host a seminar on home design. Many classes are free to the public.  Sign up to do something fun together.

Make Something Together - My husband recently got interested in making knives, so he taught our son how to design and create a knife of his own.  There are places where families can go to paint together or create a family sign for the home. Local yarn or bead shops may offer workshops on knitting or jewelry design, or a culinary school or cookware shop will provide instruction in  cooking. Craft stores have many supplies to create soaps, candles, shadowboxes, birdhouses, and much more.

Museums - Many museums, such as the Detroit Art Institute, host film series, art workshops, music and brunch.  Explore their offerings, or just visit and enjoy the art.  Asking insightful questions can help you learn more about your adult children.

As you can see, I've already started on my list for our next holiday reunion.  I hope these ideas help you enjoy your family time, too.







Saturday, September 24, 2016

5 Ways Homework Can Help Your Child

There is much debate among parents and educators about the value of homework.  A Texas teacher recently wrote a letter to parents of her 2nd grade students that she will no longer be assigning homework.  The only work going home will be work that students haven't finished in class, and her school district is backing her classroom policy.  In addition, many other school districts have passed a "No Homework" policy.   Does doing homework really support learning and benefit children?

The Benefits of Homework

When my own children were small, the questions I most often asked them after school were, "How was your day?", "Are you hungry?", and "Do you have any homework?"  I knew that if the answer to the homework question was "No" too often, I would have to talk to the teachers and find out if it was really true.  Doing homework became a routine in our household, often with me sitting alongside my kids as I completed my own homework of checking assignments that were completed by the 2nd graders that I had taught that day.

As a parent and teacher, I believe that homework has many benefits that help facilitate a child's learning and extend that learning beyond the walls of the classroom.

  • Homework provides a needed connection between home and school.   Parents will be able to see what the child is studying in class, and be able to see first hand if their child is struggling with the work or not appropriately challenged by it.
  • Children also learn time management, and develop skills to prioritize tasks or divide a large project into manageable steps. 
  • Learning should be viewed as a lifelong process, and homework reinforces and extends the learning that occurs in class. Children learn by doing homework that learning is not confined to school.
  • Perseverance in the face of adversity is a valuable skill that is developed when children tackle a tough project and see it through to completion.  Parents can provide valuable support to their child by giving one-on-one assistance with a homework assignment that isn't possible in a classroom setting.
  • Homework gives children a chance to develop responsibility and take charge of their own learning. They develop study skills which they will need once they reach upper grades and higher learning.  Students needs to know how to prioritize assignments, break down large projects into smaller tasks, and practice skills learned in class.  Homework is often necessary just to keep up with the pace of the classroom instruction.
How Parents Can Help

Parents are the single most important influence on how their children view homework.  Is it viewed as something to be done if there's time in the afterschool schedule, or is it seen as a priority? Children often adapt the views of their parents, so here are some ways to help support your child.

  • Children will need a homework area that suits their study style.  My daughter preferred to do her homework in her room while listening to music, while my son liked to do his at the kitchen table with family nearby.  Create a space that honors your child's personal work style.
  • Have supplies nearby.  A pencil box or crate with pencils, rulers,  pens, highlighters, post-it notes, scissors, glue, crayons or markers eliminates the need to search for these items.
  • Check in with your child to monitor progress or assist in answering questions, but make sure that the homework represents your child's ability.  Don't do it for him! Teachers rely on homework to see if the child has mastered concepts previously taught, and can provide assistance when they see a struggling student
  • If homework becomes a struggle for your child, talk to the teacher.  Often teachers are willing to extend a deadline, modify an assignment or otherwise provide to your child. 
  • Homework shouldn't be viewed as a punishment, but as a learning opportunity.  Be sure to have a positive attitude toward your child's homework, and be sure to convey to her the meaning behind the assignment.  
  • Celebrate when your child has finished a challenging project!  Your child will equate effort with reward, and be encouraged to approach challenges with a growth mindset.
  • Try to make homework part of the daily routine.  Set aside a time after school or after dinner when your child is most apt to want to approach a project.  Some kids prefer to do homework right after school to get it done, while others prefer later in the day.  If your child is on a sports team or has extracurricular activities after school, it makes scheduling homework more of a challenge.  Talk to the teacher to see if occasional accomodations can be made. 
With the proper preparation, attitude, and support, homework can extend your child's learning beyond the classroom, while enhacing the relationship between you and your child.  Have fun studying!











Wednesday, August 3, 2016

4 Parenting Styles - Which One Are You?


Experts have identified 4 main parenting styles among parents of young children.  Many parents don't fit neatly into either one or the other, but, depending on the situation and personalities of the parents and children involved, lines between the different styles of parenting may become blurred. Our own upbringing plays a large part in how we parent our kids. I was raised by very strict parents in a time when children were "seen and not heard",  and have found myself, at times, horrified by my father's words coming out of my mouth. "Because I said so!", "Close that door!,  "Put it down now!", and "Those lights won't turn off by themselves", are some phrases that come to mind, uttered in moments of pure frustration.  But we don't have to be stuck in the parenting styles of the past.  As parents, we are free to write a new script, one that will help define our own family culture.  Which style will it be?

Imagine this scenario:  You are at the grocery store with your child, and head to the check out line before returning home for dinner. Your child wants a treat from the candy strategically placed next to the cart and grabs a couple of candy bars from the rack, insisting that you buy them. What would you do?

Authoritarian Parents

When your child takes the candy bars, you firmly tell him to put them back immediately. You don't explain the reasons why, but demand obedience to your directive without negotiation. The authoritarian style of parenting describes parents who establish firm rules and boundaries, and expect that children will obey them without question.  Parents who use phrases such as "Do as I say" or "Because I said so" demand obedience from their children, but don't explain the reason behind the rule.  Obedience is enforced through strict consequences or punishments for disobedience. 

Children of authoritarian parents may grow up not understanding how to problem-solve or make responsible choices to govern their own behavior. They may not learn to self-monitor behavior, but  rely on others to set limits for them. Children may express suppressed anger in other ways, including poor school performance, behavior problems, trouble sleeping, etc. Children may doubt their ability to make decisions, resulting in lower self-esteem.

Authoritative Parents

If you calmly replace the candy (or instruct your child to replace it) and explain the reasons why your child can't have any, you may be an authoritative parent. Authoritative parents set rules, but employ consequences instead of punishments for infractions of these rules. These parents give children explanations about the reasons behind the rules.  This style of parenting enables children to develop their understanding of why the rule has been set and why it must be enforced. Parents often set up a system of positive reinforcement, allowing rewards for good behavior and praising children for their compliance.  These parents frequently work with children to come up with a mutually agreed-upon set of rules and consequences.

Children of authoritative parents grow up understanding and respecting rules and boundaries, and are confident in their ability to self-monitor their own behavior. 

Permissive Parents

Permissive parents would allow the candy to be included because they don't want their child to feel deprived of something she wants.  Permissive parents are very lenient when it comes to setting rules and establishing consequences for their children.  Very few limits or rules are enforced.  Their child's happiness is a top concern, so they strive to fulfill all of their child's wants to avoid conflict or unhappiness.

Children of permissive parents view them more as friends than authority figures. Children raised by permissive parents may have difficulty in school due to mandatory compliance to a set of rules with consequences for breaking these rules.  They may become disobedient toward adults who request adherence to rules, and defiant when they need to carry out a consequence for noncompliance.

Noninvolved Parents

Noninvolved parents establish no rules or limits, and put their own needs and wants before the needs of the child.  These parents may have undiagnosed mental challenges or substance abuse issues of their own, and as such, may be incapable of parenting children without assistance or intervention. Some examples may be the parent who is up late playing loud music or video games, thus depriving the child of needed sleep, or a parent who doesn't have established routines for meals, allowing a child to choose what and when to eat.

Children of noninvolved parents may have trouble with authority figures and adherence to rules. They may have how school performance, poor nutrition, and underdeveloped speech and language skills.  They will need outside intervention to help support their growth and development.

Over the past 40 years, there has been a huge cultural shift away from the authoritarian style of my past.  Early childhood research has indicated that children raised by authoritative parents have the most success in school and peer relationships. There are times when we will allow our child the candy, forget to pack a lunch, or yell "Don't touch that!", delving into other parenting styles, but the dominant style has a direct and lasting influence on the type of person your child will become.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Go Play Outside! The Value of Natural Play in the Natural World


"Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs and mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets, and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education." 
Luther Burbank, American botanist and pioneer in agricultural science.


For 16 years, I've taught young children, 5-8 years old.  For the last 6 years, I've taught 2nd grade students in a windowless classroom.  As a nature lover, it's been challenging for me not to be able to see the sky, the sun, the rain, or any part of the natural world from 8:00 to 4:00 pm.  It's also been a challenge for my students, who often will ask "Is recess outdoors or indoors?" to which I reply, "I don't know.  I've been in here with you all morning." In an effort to bring the outdoors into my classroom, I've placed silk plants on windowless ledges, hung posters of forests and rainbows, and kept a fan running to circulate the air.  Still, it is a windowless cell of a room, and one that I can't wait to escape from when the bell rings at 4:07. Many schools in inner city areas such as Detroit have cancelled outdoor recess due to safety concerns, giving students no time to interact with the natural world.   Students "enjoy" recess in their classrooms or walk the hallways to get some exercise.  Even suburban schools have proposed reducing the amount of time students spend outdoors in order to include more classroom instructional time.

Many of my students leave school to go home to apartments without much access to green spaces.  Many more attend tutoring sessions, sporting events, or extracurricular lessons which leave little time to be outdoors, interacting with nature.  When school was cancelled due to a snow day this winter,  I asked my students to write a paragraph about how they spent their day off.  I was surprised and saddened by the lack of time spent making a snowman, sledding, or battling friends in a snowball fight, and by the amount of time spent playing video games or watching movies.   For the rest of the week, the assigned homework included "Go play outside" in addition to "Study spelling words".

Recent research indicates the amount of time that children spend outdoors engaging in free play has plummeted along with the rise in obesity, stress,  anxiety, and behavior problems. Pediatrics Journal has found that 70% of American children aren't getting enough Vitamin D because they're not outside long enough to benefit from sun exposure. Besides Vitamin D,  outdoor play can provide children with many benefits including:
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Development of problem solving and leadership skills
How do parents encourage outdoor play?

Like proper nutrition and bedtime reading, outdoor play is an essential component of child development.  Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember making mud pies with sand for streusel topping, acorn cups for animal friends or fairy tea parties, and capturing turtles and tadpoles.  Catching fireflies, grasshoppers, and garter snakes,  picking berries, searching for bugs, making a blanket fort, constructing a campground for dolls, and weaving dandelion stems into bracelets were how my friends and I spent summer days.

My son loved to make racetracks in the sand for his cars, and play Jurassic Park with dinosaurs and action figures.  I'll never forget when he smeared himself from head to toe with mud to stop mosquitoes from biting, an idea he picked up from an animal show on TV.

My daughter and her friend collected specimens like seeds, leaves, and rocks to present a traveling natural earth museum to indulgent neighbors.  At the lake, she would catch turtles and dig pools for them, including sandy tunnels and switchbacks to lead them back to the water. 

These activities have one thing in common,  very little adult direction.  Childhood is the most creative time of a person's life, and imagination is a powerful force.  As a parent, follow the lead of your child, only offering to help if asked. Your role is facilitator, not director.  If your child needs a little help getting started, go outside and just talk about what he observes. Sit on the porch and watch the leaves blow in the wind or ants crawl across the cement.  Ask questions about what you see to get your child to share her thoughts.  Get in touch with your inner child and try to whistle on an acorn cap or blade of grass, skip rocks, or catch fireflies.

If you help your children enjoy the outdoors, they will not be at a loss for something to do.  The natural world is calling. Go outside and play!







Sunday, September 27, 2015

Terrific Tips for Better Test Scores

Test on Friday. These words strike fear in most students from first graders to college seniors. They worry that they'll forget the material they've already studied or that  they'll face questions they can't answer.

There is always some anxiety associated with taking a test, and for some kids, the anxiety can negatively impact their performance.  Students may know the material, but through unfamiliarity with the test format, a misunderstanding of the directions, illness or fatigue, they may not perform well.  Standardized tests are commonly given on the computer, which many young children treat like a video game, quickly clicking any answer just to make it to the next "level",  while students lacking computer expertise struggle with the technology, lowering their performance.

There are several things parents can do to help a child prepare for tests to reduce anxiety and maximize performance.

Before the Test
  • Make sure your child gets a good night's sleep.  Don't stay up late cramming information, but break it down into manageable chunks to be reviewed over a period of time.
  • Feed your child a good breakfast in the morning. Proper nutrition helps the brain work more effectively and keeps the child energized.
  • Teach your child deep breathing techniques to reduce anxiety. Deep breathing calms the brain, allowing the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus to access learning and memory.
  • Ask about the test format. Will it be essay, multiple choice, true/false or short answer? Knowing the format helps determine how to best review and practice the material.
During the Test
  •  Instruct your child to read the directions of each section of the test and follow them carefully.  Instructions such as "Record the answer which DOES NOT apply," or "Using the diagram of a basic electrical circuit, explain the function of EACH PART," can be easily misinterpreted if a student is careless about reading directions.
  • Advise your child to work through the examples. Examples are given to familiarize students with the section format and directions. If a student has trouble understanding the examples, he will have difficulty with the actual test questions.
  • Tell your child to be aware of deadlines on timed tests. A student shouldn't spend a lot of time on the multiple choice section if she needs to write a lengthy essay at the end of the test.
  • On essay tests, students should write everything they know about the topic on a separate sheet of paper. Organize these notes into an outline before writing the essay. The outline will help them stay organized and include key information.
  • On multiple choice tests, your child should eliminate incorrect answer choices immediately.  This narrows the field of possible correct choices.
After the Test

Students should use any remaining time to check their work.  Rework math calculations, make sure an essay or short response paragraph answers all the requirements of the test question, check spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

When you get the test back, review the results. Check for any gaps in understanding to review the areas of difficulty.  Remember, a test is only one way to assess learning. Many high-achieving students perform poorly on tests due to test anxiety.  To lessen their stress,  I remind my students before each test that a test is to let me know what they've already learned, so I can teach them what they need to know.

Tests are a necessary tool to assess student achievement and will always be a part of your child's academic environment.   Teaching children how to prepare, execute, and review tests will help them maximize their performance and achievement.  Test on Friday?  No problem!











Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Children and Lies

Some of my math manipulatives had mysteriously gone missing. A plastic deli container full of buttons was reduced to a fraction of the original amount. The glass blobs, which were smooth, pastel discs used for sorting and patterning exercises, were also missing.  Puzzled, I called a class meeting to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

"Boys and girls, we have a mystery to solve. " The kids gathered around, excited that the mysteries that I read to them every day were about to be reenacted in real life.

I showed them the containers.  "Our supplies from the math center have gone missing."  They were visibly disappointed.  Apparently, I was the only one who was not in on the mystery.

 "It's Amanda," one boy said. "She put them in her book box."
Amanda vehemently denied it.

 "It's true," said another student. "I saw her." Many other kids nodded their heads in agreement. 

I looked at Amanda, who was scowling at the whistleblowers, and said, "Let's not accuse someone without proof.  If you know what happened to the supplies, please write what you know on a piece of paper and return it to me." I passed out post-it notes and the children began writing.  Note after note produced Amanda's name. Some notes included details of what happened.  One note said "Mark" but I figured that was Amanda's contribution to solving the mystery. 

The children went to Music class, and I searched Amanda's desk and backpack.  There were no buttons or glass blobs, but there were 3 magnifying glasses, 2 bags of volcanic rocks from our science kit, two writing correction pens, a decorative magnet that another child had made for me,  and three books that belonged to other children.

I collected these items, and held Amanda back from recess to discuss my findings with her.  "I'm concerned that your name turned up on almost all of the notes about the missing math supplies.  Can you help me figure out what happened to them?"

She vehemently denied taking anything, and volunteered no information about what had happened.    I produced the things that were in her desk and backpack, and she denied taking them from class. When I pressed further, she accused a little boy who sat next to her of putting them in her desk and backpack.  I called her home and spoke to her parents, who had been quite mystified by the items she was bringing home.  Amanda told them that I had given her gifts for doing well on spelling and math tests.  I explained that while she was doing very well on her tests, I wasn't giving her gifts, and these items were needed classroom supplies.   I asked her parents to have Amanda return the things to class tomorrow.

I thought of Amanda's story as I listened to the Today Show's segment about children and lying.  It included findings based on a study by the University of Sheffield.
According to the Today show segment about the study,  135 children were tested,  and the findings have "revealed that the liars in the group performed better on a trivia test than honest children."  Psychologists reached this conclusion due to the fact that "lying requires thought and memory skills — a child who is not telling the truth needs to be able to keep their story straight." Apparently, children who lie use their memory to recall fabricated details, fictional series of events, and alterations of facts, makes them smarter than children who tell the truth.

This is so sad to me as both a mom and a teacher.  A child who tells the truth and owns up to a situation even knowing there may be consequences, shows integrity.  A child who lies may use more of their brain or cognitive processes to fabricate the lie, according to the University of Sheffield study, but lacks the integrity and honor of a child who tells the truth because simply because it is the right thing to do. 

Amanda returned some of the pilfered items the next day, with an apology letter written to me for her actions.  I told her that I accepted her apology, and stressed the importance of telling the truth.  Trust is not as easily replaced as school supplies.  Actions, such as stealing have consequences, but lying also has consequences.  That is something that honest children are smart enough to know.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences

It's mid-October and the school year is well underway.  I have finished assessments, gotten to know the children, their interests, friendships, strengths and areas of difficulty, and the first report cards have yet to go home.  I'm looking forward to 3 nights of parent conferences; 15 minutes when I can learn from the people closest to my students, what interests them, motivates them, or causes them difficulty.

When parents have prepared their own comments and questions, it makes the process truly collaborative - teacher and parents working toward the success of a child.  Here are some ways to make those 15 minutes count!

  • Ask your child if they have any concerns.  During the hectic pace of a school day, problems your child is having become forgotten, often surfacing during car rides or at bedtime.  Write these down, and ask the teacher about them.  Notify the teacher if there is anything happening at home that may affect your child's progress at school.  The death of a pet, the birth of a sibling, or a move to a new house all affect children in different ways, and often have an impact on school performance. 
  • Ask the teacher what they notice about your child during the school day.  A typical school day is 6.5 to 7 hours long.  The teacher can give you an idea about how your child works and plays with other children,  if she demonstrates areas of strength, or appears challenged.  Your child may have struck up a friendship in school that you can encourage  through play dates at home. The teacher spends a lot of time building a community of learners.  Find out how your child interacts with others her age within the classroom community.
  • Discuss homework.  Too much or too little?  How much should you help your child?  Should you  let her do the work on her own?  What is the best time to do homework?  Right after school, or is after dinner and soccer practice better?  Let the teacher know your concerns and ask her for her expectations.
  • Strengths and challenges.  Every child has areas of strength, as well as areas that could be strengthened. Does your child have an interest that could be a learning opportunity?  If he hates to write but loves Minecraft or shipwrecks, perhaps he can be encouraged to write a report on an area of interest to share with the class. Does your child struggle with timed math fact tests?  Help develop a strategy for increased practice (computer programs such Cool Math and Moby Max are great ways to strengthen math skills in a fun way.)
  • Plan for the future.  Ask what projects are upcoming and how to best prepare your child for them. Address and correct behavior concerns before they become ingrained habits.  Make a plan for growth toward established objectives.  Ask for more challenging work for your child if she appears bored by the classwork, or extra help if the work appears too challenging.
A parent-teacher conference is a great time to advocate for your child in partnership with your child's teacher.  Keep lines of communication open, and remember that teachers work with children to help them grow and learn.  They really want what's best for your child, as do you.  Developing this relationship will help your child soar!