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!