Monday, January 31, 2011

Where can I find help for math homework?

Ms. Dorothy,
My son is having a hard time understanding area and perimeter, and my own math isn't strong enough to help him with it.  I bet this is only going to get worse as the math gets harder in school. Can you tell me some good resources I can use to help us both understand his math homework?
- Middle School Mom

There are some great resources online for learning math, and many are broken down by grade-level to help you further.  

This site has lessons and practice for learning Area and Perimeter, and the links are to other websites with great resources. I like this site because the reference some of the best math tools out there, and they pull them together for you based on your specific question.

This site is my very favorite, and I've used it with all three of your boys over the years. It is packed with virtual manipulatives so that students can use "hands on" tools to learn and practice concepts rather than just learning formulas. They use a matrix of math content and grade levels to help you find the menu of activities that will help you practice the skills you need.

This site is from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and has the most cutting edge thinking about how best to teach the math you need. Every activity is aligned with standards and best practice for teaching and learning math and is also broken down by grade level.

Be sure to look past the specific topic to the rest of these sites because there are resources here for every age and on every math standard or concept you could want. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How can I help a child make a fresh start?

Ms. Dorothy, 
Here is a kid in fifth grade. He has always seemed to get in some trouble. Mostly impulse control, social ineptness, but big enough for other teachers to remember. Now he has the self image of a kiddo who is problematic + he's really disorganized. How do I get him ready to start middle school so he can have a fresh start?
- An Aunt

What a great positive approach.  In life, we are given a few opportunities to start fresh and re-invent ourselves, and transitioning between schools is certainly one!

Knowing that impulse control and disorganization are a part of many people's lives, but are not who they are, is a key to moving past the worry. 

Have him look over a list of symptoms for ADD or ADHD and see what things he has in common and what things he doesn't.  The sense of control that is possible when you know you are "normal" and can choose what you manifest is very powerful.

At the same time, there are many diet changes, organization systems, and focus techniques that are used to support children who struggle with these symptoms, and he may find those helpful too.

You may find the book Right Brained Children in a Left Brained World has some interesting ideas for supporting him.

Whatever you decide to try, a great move for him would be to approach his middle school teachers and explain that he is aware of his issues and that he is making efforts to grow and improve himself. Asking for the teacher's support and understanding will demonstrate maturity and self-efficacy and may win him the favor of those he has to work with for the next few  years.

Remember too, that sharing your own experiences with becoming organized, or thinking before acting, will help him to see that he is not alone and that many successful adults fought these same battles in school.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When are children proficient at typing?

Ms. Dorothy,
 _____, who is 12, has Aspergers. He is very high functioning, but not surprisingly, fine motor skills are not his forte. At what age are kids proficient at typing? How would you define proficient? Is it the sort of skill that like writing, will just improve over time as you are challenged to work at it more and more?
- A Mom

Typing has become necessary for students in Middle and High School as teachers ask for assignments turned in via email, or in manuscript formats.  Accordingly, keyboarding is taught younger than it once was.  

Some programs exist, like Type to Learn, that make learning keyboarding into a game rather than a rote drill, and can help with gaining mastery. Though even a two finger typist can become efficient with enough practice.

Because the motor movement of shaping the letters supports brain development, handwriting helps to learn spelling and helps to write at the rate that you think. 
If, however, you struggle with controlling a pen and your writing slows you down, learning keyboarding may be more helpful. 

There are some great articles on the Science Daily site about the importance of learning to both write and type.

The key to proficiency, for writing or typing, is the ability to communicate fluently. 
The skill that you have practiced enough to make words come automatically, will be the method that gets ideas from head to paper most efficiently. 

We are all slowed down in the learning stages by thinking through the spelling of words.  If your writing is additionally slowed down by the formation of letters and the discomfort of holding a writing implement, communication is inhibited.

For someone who struggles with communication already, removing as many roadblocks as possible has to be our highest priority.

The future of writing may live in touch screens, visual formats, and two thumb texting. Students who struggle with communication in general may be the pioneers in bringing new technologies to the classroom, and help to revolutionize our thinking about how we share ideas.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why can't I use Time Out any more?

Ms. Dorothy,
I've heard some stuff lately about not using "time out" with kids. I was told that I should use a "thinking chair" or an "observation chair" but not a "time out chair."  Is this just the latest in PC terms, or is there really something different about these? 
- Home Child Care Provider

Generally, when a term becomes taboo in education, it means that the thinking has changed. It isn't just a new term, it is a new approach, and the name change is designed to make you think differently about it.

"Time out" is thought of as a way to punish or reprimand a child for wrong-doing.

"Observation" or "Thinking" or "Cool Down" or "Quiet Space" or "Peace Table" are all ways to shift the thinking from correction to learning.

When you remove a child from the group to observe what others are doing, to think about choices, to cool down, or to find a peaceful or quiet moment to re-group and become ready to return, it shouldn't be about punishment. 

Adding a "time out" consequence to a "quiet think time" when the child is calm, is a great way to satisfy the adult's need to humble and punish a child, but isn't at all about learning. 

Learning happens when the adult takes the time to talk with the child who is ready to calmly rejoin the group.  That conversation should be the point of removing a child.

If the adult is not able to talk calmly about; how the child could have handled the situation differently, and what s/he will do next time, then it is the adult who needs a "time out."

Let's move our thinking from making children comply and conform and defer to the adults, to helping children to understand how their actions and reactions impact others, and how they have the power to make different choices.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How do I show a tween he doesn't know it all?

Ms. Dorothy,
My boy is in 5th grade, and he is convinced that he knows everything. How do I show this hard-headed young man that every day is a new learning experience and an opportunity?
-"Gifted" Mom

It seems that his Gifted and Talented label has gone to his hard head.  

Perhaps you could show him the difference between learning things quickly and easily, and already knowing.  

Pick something that he has never done before, like flying a biplane, and ask him to teach you how. When he can't, ask if he will research it with you. Look up information about the plane, and let him read up about it till he can explain how it works. Then point out how this was new material that he learned.

Then ask him to teach you how to tie a shoe. 

The two are completely different experiences.

Already knowing is what you do once you have learned. But to learn, you have to first admit that you don't already know, and then go get the information.  

"Giftedness" is about the disposition to learn. Without that, he is just knowledgeable.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When should my children play on computers?

Ms. Dorothy,
There is a lot of talk now about new technology and 21st century skills, but I'm uncomfortable having my young children on the computer.  Not that I'm afraid of computers, I just feel that there are better things they could be doing with their time.  I have friends that rave about their toddler's skills with a mouse, but I'd rather my kids were not into technology yet.  What do you think?
- Dad of a 3 and a 4 year old

Technology holds tremendous promise for education. It brings the whole world into the learning equation, and as it becomes more mobile and versatile, the potential seems endless.  

Preschool children, however, don't need any of it. 

The developing brain takes in information about the world through the senses, and builds connections with these experiences.  Active involvement and interaction between the child and the world is essential to learning. 

Any amount of "screen time" in the early years is actually time lost from doing those things the child is watching.  This goes for tv, computer and any other games or devices that do not allow the child to physically interact with what they are looking at.

The Wii, Kinect, and other interactive gaming programs allow children to virtually interact with things. However, seeing an avatar pet an animal while you make motions like you are petting it, is just not the same brain building experience as actually petting an animal, feeling it's warmth and fur, smelling it's breath, and having it react to your touch.  

Children, especially young children, need to have real experiences before the virtual and visual equivalents will have meaning for them.  

Let your children play, and create. Take them to parks and zoos and playgrounds, and give them experiences that build the network in their brains.  Then later they can use that brain to network in other ways.

Monday, January 24, 2011

How can I best teach Spanish to preschoolers?

Ms. Dorothy,
I am teaching a pre-school Spanish class this coming summer.  I've taught Spanish for years, but mostly 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. What do I need to think about differently for 3, 4 and 5 year olds?  Any great resources you could recommend for this age group would be great too!
- Spanish Teacher

The most important thing to know about pre-schoolers is that they need to move! 

You won't need to worry about paper and pencils, but books, songs, dances and games are your friends with this age group.

My recommendation would be to keep change activities often, and practice some simple things like numbers, body parts, and greetings.

Look for CDs by Jose-Luis Orozco they are full of culturally authentic songs that are fun to sing and move to. He has a book of finger plays with some great Latin American active songs too.

There are wonderful picture books by Arthur Dorros that introduce Spanish phrases into an English story. 

You can also use Spanish translations of English pattern books that they are already familiar with too.  Eric Carle books in Spanish are fun, though not a tool for cultural literacy.

I've not had a chance to try this program out, but it looks like a great tool to use as well!

Enjoy the little guys, they will love you!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How do I help my kids cope with my divorce?

Ms. Dorothy,
My husband and I are splitting up. Our two daughters are having a hard time with this.  The high schooler is taking it much worse than either of us expected. She is struggling academically, socially, and is emotionally depressed. She is old enough to understand what's going on, so why is this so hard for her?
- A Mom

Changes in the home impact different children in different ways, but they are all affected by it in some way, no matter how old they are.

Your daughters should both see a counselor.  

Your high schooler is showing some dramatic outward reactions to this, and needs very real help to cope with her emotions.

But don't neglect your younger daughter. Just because her response hasn't been as overt, does not mean she isn't suffering as well. As a matter of fact, she is probably also dealing with the confusion and stress of the household's reactions to her older sister.

Please contact the kids' schools or their doctors and get a referral to a counselor right away. Putting this off could make things much worse, and much harder to remedy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How do I get my daughter to speak in school?

Ms. Dorothy,
My daughter _______ will not talk in her preschool class.  She can, and does talk at home, but her teacher has never heard her voice.  It's not just shyness, she is a "selective mute" at school and doesn't speak from the moment we arrive in the parking lot in the morning till we are out of sight of the building headed home.  Do you have any thoughts that could help us?
Mom of a 4 year old

Selective mutism is a form of social anxiety.  Your daughter isn't choosing not to speak at school, she is scared of speaking at school.  

There are resources available on-line that can help you understand the diagnosis, but the important thing is that you not get lost in the diagnosis and how you feel about what is happening with her.  

She needs a combination of support for taking risks in small successive steps, and understanding about how she is feeling. 
The teacher needs to work with you to encourage her without pressuring her, and to support her efforts without enabling her.  

It is a challenge, but it is something that should be addressed with understanding so that it does not become exaggerated over time. 

Try bringing home one of the children from school for a play date. If your daughter can speak to that child in your home where she feels safe, perhaps she can extend it to talking to that child in the classroom. Adding one friend at a time could help alleviate the stress.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How do I help with boring homework?

Ms. Dorothy,
My son is a reader.  I don't know exactly how he taught himself to read, but he just started reading on his own when he was 3 years old.  His Kindergarten class is working on learning letters and sounds, and it is driving me crazy to see the "homework" he gets each week.  I feel like he is wasting his time in school because they are not challenging him at all.  He says he likes school, but he finds a lot of it just boring.  HELP! I don't want him to develop bad habits, or to be bored, but I don't know how to change what they are doing in his class either. 
-Mom of a 5 year old.

You and your son are right to be frustrated with a curriculum that doesn't meet his needs. However, it is going to be up to you to push for the changes that will make it work for him.

It is important that the teacher know what your son can do.  

Record him reading a book at home, and bring the book and the recording to his teacher. Ask for the teachers assessment of his approximate reading level, his greatest strengths as a reader and some possible next steps for his level.    

Talk to the teacher about the specific issues he is having with the homework, and ask if there is some alternative work he could be doing that would be more in line with his individual needs.

Ask about the routine of the day, and how the teacher sees him fitting in and working during the day.  Find out if there are problem spots in his day, and advocate for modified assignments that will help to keep him engaged in learning when the work is not what he needs.

You may want to observe the class - not to see his behavior, because that will certainly be different with  you in the room - but to see the routines of the day, and to see the other children.  Keep an eye out for others who may be bored with learning letters as they could be "mind mates" for  your son - encourage your son to partner with others who are close to his reading level.

It is the teacher's responsibility to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of students in the classroom, but not every teacher knows how to make that work in kindergarten.  
If you are not getting the changes you've requested, ask for a meeting with the teacher and the principal.

Never underestimate the value of being "ahead" of the class, or of getting to "help" others who are not at the same level, but be sure that your child is actively learning too.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How do I get my kids to clean up after themselves?

Ms. Dorothy,
I can't get my kids (ages 3 and 6) to clean their rooms! I send them to clean, but when I come back it's still a mess.  I'm so frustrated, and I'm about to make their toy areas off limits!  What can I do to make them clean their mess?!
-Mother of two

The most important thing to do right now, is to decide what your real goals are.  

If you want your children to be creative and spontaneous, and, well, children, make sure the room is safe, and close the door so you don't have to see the mess. 

If you want your children to learn to care for and respect their things, you might want to work with them to create systems for order, and then repeat that process every time it gets too out-of-hand.

If you want your children to clean to your satisfaction, you will want to clean it yourself, take pictures and post them so that the children will be able to see what clean is "supposed to" look like. Then, though you will still have a battle to get them to do it, at least they will know what they are expected to achieve. 

If you want your home to look as if no children live there, then you might want to consider giving the kids away.

Whatever you decide, be clear about your goals, and take some time to play with them and try to understand their perspective about the toy areas before you make them off limits. Perhaps losing yourself in the joy of their laughter will help you think differently about your frustration.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why don't they teach cursive any more?

Ms. Dorothy,
Why don't teachers teach cursive any more?  My older kids all learned in 3rd grade, and by 5th grade they were required to read and write in cursive.  Now my younger kids aren't being taught cursive at all.  The teachers say there is too much else to teach.  When are they supposed to learn cursive if they cut it out of school? Can you explain this for me?
- Mom with second family

Cursive writing is a specialized art form, like calligraphy, and is not a priority in elementary schools.

You may want to ask your older children how often they use cursive writing in high school and college.  If they can think of more than one or two practical uses for it, I would be surprised. As fewer and fewer people learn the art of reading and writing cursive, the less use there will be for it.

Time in school spent on learning keyboarding skills is a more about preparing students for the realities of higher education and the practicalities of the work world.  

Time spent on preserving cherished traditions is no longer the domain of public education.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How do I avoid burnout?

Ms. Dorothy,
I know I'm new, and I know it will get easier, but this job is SO HARD! I'm exhausted all the time, and I feel like I"m always behind. How do you keep your energy up for the kids and stay on top of all that needs to be done? I don't know if I can keep doing this! Help!
-New Teacher

The first year teaching is unbelievably hard and it is easy to get overwhelmed.  Hang in there and don't give up yet!

One thing you need to know is that t
here will always be one more thing you could do. Always.

Make a running to do list, and keep it current by adding new items as you cross off others. Keep a journal of your progress and how much you have learned from your students. 

Keeping your energy up is really about focus. When you give your attention and energy to the kids and the learning, instead of to the curriculum and the teaching, you will find you have much more energy. 

What you teach, and how you teach will always take your energy. Who you teach brings you back to why you teach, and that is what will give you back your energy. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

How do I get my class to turn in homework?!

Ms. Dorothy,
I have tried taking away recess, holding kids after school, and calling home. I've also tried class bribes, incentives, and individual prizes. It doesn't seem to matter what I do, my kids just don't do homework, or if they do it, they don't turn it in! It is making me crazy, and I am out of ideas. Can you help?
-4th grade teacher

There really is only one right answer to this problem.  Stop giving homework.

If they aren't doing it, or aren't turning it in, it is probably because the work has no meaning for them.  Those who are doing the homework probably don't need the extra practice, but are willing to, or enjoy complying with your expectations.  

I understand the thinking that homework builds discipline, and good habits, and that putting the extra practice in at home will help to solidify learning, but you aren't getting any of those things.  

Take some time and reflect on the amount of time in class, and the amount of energy outside of class, you have put into trying to make your class value the homework you assign. Then consider what else you might have accomplished with that time and energy if homework were off the table.

If you have school requirements for homework, ask your students to read books, magazines, or websites at home. But stop battling them to prove that they've done it.

Consider what might happen if you give every student a perfect grade for homework for the rest of the year, and then asked them what they'd have to do to live up to that grade.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How do I get my kids to turn in homework?

Ms. Dorothy,
My boys are having a hard time taking responsibility for their work.  Sometimes they do their homework and then don't turn it in.  I start school myself in the Spring, and I won't be there to hold their hands through this.  How can I get them to be responsible?
- Mom of Middle Schoolers

When homework has no meaning, it is hard to value it.  If the boys feel like they are doing work just for the sake of doing it, it's understandable that they "forget" to turn it in, and even that they don't always do it.

Unfortunately, much of what they are going to have to do over the coming years will be as meaningless to them as the work they are not turning in now.

It is important that they understand how the game is played, and their role in it.  

To be successful in school, they will need to comply with the expectations of teachers.  Not to please the teacher, and not because the teacher is right, but because the boys need what the teachers have to offer.

In order to get where they are going outside of school, the boys need to make the system work for them.  The teachers are an important part of the ticket out of school, and if the boys understand that, it will help them to stop trying to resist and just let it work for them.

Over the next months and years, you will have plenty of opportunities to model good work habits for them.  Remember to talk about the work you do for school, and to let them see you doing it.  They will learn more from your example than from anything you say now.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What tricks help readers with tracking?

Ms. Dorothy,
______ is struggling with his reading, especially when he is reading out loud.  He has a hard time keeping track of the line he is reading when he goes down to the next line.  I've tried using a book mark or a piece of paper under the line, but it almost seems to slow him down even more.  Are there other tricks that can help him?
- 3rd grade Mom

Reading is much less about translating a word at a time, and much more about making sense of phrases and sentences and ideas in chunks.  It may be that he is self-conscious about the accuracy of his word call when reading aloud, and questioning himself is what slows him down.

It is important that he be able to see the words in the lines following what he is reading because the information we gather by scanning ahead is more helpful for fluent reading than anything else. 

If you are going to cover lines to help him track, try covering the line above what he is reading rather than below.

Some people find reading black letters on white pages is difficult because there is too much dramatic contrast.  Try experimenting with pieces of colored cellophane to find a color that feels comfortable to his eyes.

My final suggestion would be to be sure he has a thorough eye exam to rule out any physical problems that may be interfering with his reading.

Friday, January 14, 2011

When do I remove disruptive students?

Ms. Dorothy,
I am in a co-teaching situation with 4th and 5th grade at-risk students. The other teachers remove the student from the classroom after a couple warnings on behavior and send them to the principle - this is what the school has suggested. In my facilitation, I have never chosen to remove a student from the classroom unless they are putting another person in danger. I prefer to talk it out and explain what the problem is and what they need to do. So what is your insight on removing students from the classroom? 
-Music Teacher

Depending on how it is handled, I believe that removing a student from the immediate activity, or even from the learning space is often the right thing to do.  

If a student is disrupting the learning for others, she can be invited to consider the others, or can be reminded of the needs of the others. 
If she persists in the behaviors that are causing the problem, despite being ignored, she should be given no more time, attention or consideration. 

While continuing to talk with, teach, direct or work with the rest of the class, this child can be walked to an alternate place in the room where, from outside the circle of learning, she can observe.

This should not require any discussion because the "warning" has already been given. She knows why, and it is insulting to continue to explain, lecture, yell, correct or chastise her.

Just act. 

If she continues to disrupt from outside the group, she should be removed in the same manner to an alternate safe, supervised space. Without comment.  

The other children in the class will look for consistency from you. So rinse and repeat. 

If you end up in the room alone, continue to play, dance, sing and laugh.
The next day, start with a clean slate, but stay consistent. Some will not need to test you again. 
Belonging is the single greatest need of "at-risk" students. If you are offering something they want, they will work to be a part of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How do I motivate a "lazy" learner?

Ms. Dorothy,
My son is one of the most persistent people I've ever met - when he is doing something he wants to do.  Any time we try to teach him something that might be a little hard, he shuts down, gives up, walks away. I want my son to love learning, but it seems like every day is a struggle. Do you have any suggestions on how to motivate active, independent, hands-on, give-up-if-its-too-hard-at-first boys?
-Homeschool Mom

Persistence is the trait you want to build on.  You know that he can stick with something against all odds.  He needs to know that it is persistence that you value, and that he knows how to use.

Talking with him about how the brain learns; how, like a muscle, it becomes stronger with work, will help him to link his "smarts" with his persistence. 

The book Nurture Shock explains current research and is a great resource on the topic of praising brain processes to help children develop.

Setting specific learning outcomes will help too.  When he persisted in learning to walk, it was a long-term goal, somewhat out of his reach - a challenge.  If the small bite daily reading activities don't motivate him, it may be that he doesn't see the big target. 

Try enticing him with a motivating end goal.  Read, for example, the first book of the "Magic Treehouse" series to him, (about a mid-year-2nd grade-level book) and explain that when his brain is strong enough, he will be able to read the rest of the series himself. Then see if those daily activities will be more like small hurdles to get to a bigger prize, a prize that gets closer every time he works hard.

It is understandable that you want to make learning fun for him.  Maybe if he sees the fun in working toward a long-term goal he will learn to love learning - even things he isn't excited about.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How do I get a frightened child to ride the bus?

Ms. Dorothy,
My 2nd grader is TERRIFIED of riding the bus. How can I make her comfortable with it? She is nervous about walking from her class to the bus, and she's worried that since she's so tired after school, she might fall asleep on the bus and miss her stop. Driving to and from school every day is making me crazy!  What are your thoughts?
- A Mom

It seems to me, that any time an 8 year old expresses such extreme fear, there is probably something more to look at. 

Taking her feelings seriously is a great way to ensure that she will continue to trust you with her honest emotions and fears as she grows into her teens. 

Walking from the class to the bus can be very chaotic (and seldom looks like walking!)

If your daughter is concerned about sleeping on the bus, she may be exhausted by the stress of her day, or of the bus ride itself.  It may be worth digging a little deeper to see if there is more going on than you are aware of.

Some children are nervous about missing the bus if they don't race, and others worry about the age range that ride the bus together.  

When we train children (by sending them to a school system that segregates by age) to believe that they can only think, work and make friends with children who were born in the same year, we inadvertently instill a misunderstanding of, and the potential for fear of, those who are older and younger.  

You could try to find an older neighbor that rides the bus and "hire" him or her to collect your daughter and walk with her to the bus, ride with her to their stop, and make sure she gets off.  If you  make it a "babysitting" job for a slightly older (but not yet old enough to officially babysit) child, you might even be able to "pay" in after-school snacks.

Another thing you might consider is continuing to drive until she feels she is ready for the bus.  As crazy as it makes you now, there will come a day that you miss those rides to and from school with her!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Should I start my students blogging?

Ms Dorothy,
I was thinking about starting a blog with my students.  I thought they could all keep electronic journals, and we could share and critique one-another's writing and choose one piece to post every week.  It would be a great way to improve the quality of their work, and give them an excuse to write and listen to each other's writing.  I know there are free blog-sites out there like blogger, and they aren't a lot of work to set up.  I'm not worried about readership because I'm sure their parents will want to read the blog.  I'm pretty sure I could manage it and even submit posts of my own for the class to critique and take my turn in the rotation of posts. We could write about whatever we are studying, so they could write pieces that are news reports of our work, or opinions on the topics, or research pieces, or even reports. It would be wide open for them to come up with pieces and then advocate for which piece they think should be posted each week. I think it could be a really worthwhile adventure.  Do you think I should just jump in and try it?
-6th grade teacher


Monday, January 10, 2011

Managing Behavior in Kindergarten (Part 3)

Ms. Dorothy - 
I see you recommending that I praise my students and children to eliminate negative behaviors.  I've been told NOT to praise because it makes the children dependent on your approval.  I wonder if you could talk more about this, or suggest some further reading on the topic?
- Teacher

I am so glad that you asked me to clarify this.  
Praise and encouragement are words that have been defined differently by educational experts.  

The goal of removing praise from your practice is not about eliminating encouragement, but about removing your valuation.  

There is a difference between telling your class "I see that  Marcus is sitting, ready to listen and learn."  and telling them "I like the way Marcus is sitting."  

The first is about Marcus and what Marcus is choosing to do.  It reinforces the rules, and offers a model for following the rules.  The second is is about you and what you like about Marcus.  It sets a child up as one that has won your favor, but doesn't make clear what others could do to gain recognition.  

The encouraging way that  you notice when students are demonstrating positive behaviors, and name those behaviors, supports learning.  Everyone wants to hear their name said, and every child loves to be an example of following the rules.  In that sense, it is praise.  

The goal should not be that you never praise children, but that you make what you acknowledge be about their actions, and not about you.  

Here is a chart that distinguishes one as praise and the other as encouragement.  By these definitions, I am a firm believer in encouragement as a tool for helping students develop a sense of agency and an internal locus of control.

To read more on the topic, check out the works of H. Stephen Glenn, Jane Nelsen,  Rudolf Dreikurs,  Peter H. Johnston,  and Alfie Kohn.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Managing Behavior in Kindergarten (Part 2)

Ms. Dorothy,
My principal is concerned about my classroom management.  I am not a brand new teacher, but this is my first year in kindergarten.  All the tools in my bag of tricks seem to fall flat with these little guys.  The hardest thing is getting through transitions, but I guess I'm struggling with getting their attention at other times too.  I have a bell I ring, and I clap a rhythm, but they just aren't working well. I am sending home notes about behaviors daily and I'm not happy to have all this attention from the principal for what I'm not doing well.  Maybe you have some ideas I can try?
- 6th year teacher

It is always hard to be asked to examine your practice, especially when you aren't aware that you are having a problem with something, but the reflection and new learning you are doing will be worth the work, both for you and for those kindees.

In the world of coaching, getting attention for what you are not doing well is called "deficit focused development" and it seldom works the way people who are proponents of it, believe it will.

If your principal turns his/her attention to what you are doing successfully, and provides you with models of teachers who are not struggling with transitions, you are more likely to notice the great "tools" other teachers are using on your own, and adapt them to your classroom.

Take some time to reflect on what you do well, visit other teachers, and build on strengths.

The important thing to remember is that transitions require routines, and routines have to be learned, and kindergarten children need a lot of practice and a lot of encouragement to master new routines. 

Breaking your transition, or attention getting routine, down into the smallest possible parts, and instructing, and taking time to practice each of those steps, will yield the best results. There are some great resources for teaching routines available, just remember that kindergarten children need plenty of time dedicated to learning routines. 

For those children who are not cooperating, the best thing you can do for them is exactly what would work best for you.

In the world of kindergarten, getting attention for what you are not doing well is called "behavior management" and it seldom works the way teachers who are proponents of it, believe it will.

If you turn your attention to what the students are doing well and are successful at, and you provide them with models of what it looks like to be doing it correctly, they are likely to mimic the correct behavior to earn your praise.  They want to please you more than you can imagine, and that is the best tool in your bag of tricks by far!

I have some previous posts here, here, and here that talk about ways to encourage young children to "behave" in class.  When in doubt, try talking to them about the problem and asking them to help brainstorm ways to work together better. You can always go to their greatest strengths and build on them.

The important thing to remember is that WHEN a consequence is necessary, when a situation deliberately endangers someone's physical or mental well-being, the response should be immediate and directly connected to the situation. A threat, or a punishment at another time, or that seems unconnected to the "crime" will not be effective and will frustrate you both.  

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Managing Behavior in Kindergarten (Part 1)

Ms Dorothy,
My son started Kindergarten in September.  His teacher gives "smiley" faces when the student had a good day and "frowney" faces when the student has misbehaved.  ______comes home almost every day with a "frowney" face.  I spoke to his teacher and she says he is not cooperating.  He speaks out of turn and is having trouble staying in his seat.  I've talked to him till I'm blue in the face and punished him for his outbursts.  I have a two and a half year old daughter and a newborn son - I'm at my wits end!  Help!
- Mom of 3

Managing a class of 20 to 30 energetic 5 year olds is a unique challenge.  It is as unlike handling preschoolers, as it is first graders.  Kindergarten, in many places, is a half day of trying to help get children ready for the next 12 or 16 years of school.  

Many teachers struggle with negotiating the challenges of a classroom full of people who may never have had to share an adult with more than one or two siblings before.  Suddenly to find that you have 25 children, all of whom are 
accustomed to getting almost immediate attention when they want it, can be a nightmare.

There are a lot of "systems" out there to help teachers share responsibility with parents for "training" children to wait their turn, cooperate, or "behave."  Smiley faces, cards colored for warnings, three strike rules, names on boards, numbered charts, stamps on hands - all of these are ways to coerce cooperation from children, and all of them hold the threat of reporting home as a consequence.  Ironically, this happens in classrooms where "tattling" is taboo.

The truth is, that kindergarten children have already lived long enough to figure out that getting one of their most basic needs met, that of belonging, can happen one of two ways.  What they desire most is the approval of adults around them, but barring that, getting attention for doing things wrong, will do. 

They have managed for 5 years to learn most of what they know, not from being told, but from being praised for approximations.  We encourage our children in crawling, walking, babbling, talking, riding a trike, etc., all through positive responses to their attempts.  

Suddenly, at age 5, we ask them to share the praise with twenty or more others.  We expect them to learn by listening and watching, and much less doing than they are accustomed to, and to get it right immediately upon being taught.  

Kindergarten children are clever enough to settle, some of them quite quickly, for the attention that negative behavior brings.  Getting singled out is, getting singled out, after all.  The worst part of this is that your child will develop a pattern of behavior, and a reputation, that will travel with him throughout his school career if it isn't changed now.

Much more effective management happens when teachers expend the bulk of their energy finding the things their students are doing right, and praising them for it.  Remarking about how one student is sitting patiently, while ignoring the one who is calling out, will instantly get several other children to sit patiently.  It may not convince the "blurter" right away, but ignore that behavior a few times, and it will begin to change. 

If your child's teacher is sending home reports, stamping his hand, giving out frowney faces, or the like, ignore it.  Completely.  

When he comes home, ask him what he was most proud of.  Talk about that.  And praise him for it.  Turn his attention to what he is doing well.

And if you doubt that ignoring the teacher's frowny faces is the right thing to do, ask yourself what she would do if you sent a note in with him explaining that he hadn't eaten all his broccoli at dinner time.  

Friday, January 7, 2011

How do I strengthen my child's hand for writing?

Ms. Dorothy,
My son is having a hard time with writing because it is hard for him to hold a pen or pencil for very long.  He writes faintly because he doesn't press hard enough, and the teacher says his fine motor skills are seriously lagging. Are there things he can do to improve his strength so he can write at grade level?
-Mom of a 2nd grader

Struggling with fine motor development is not uncommon for young boys, but there are some things you can do to help him strengthen his hands.

First take a look at some of the specific activities I suggested in an earlier post about fine motor development.  Some of these may seem a little young to him, but the concept is the same.

You might want to consider getting some occupational therapy tools for him to work with that won't seem as "babyish".  Tools like Eggsercizers, Theraputty, Power-Webs, or DigiFlex hand exercisers might suit him better.  

If his writing is becoming a problem in school, or if he isn't making progress fast enough with these tools, talk to his teacher about having him complete assignments on a keyboard.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How do I teach my students to try harder?

Ms. Dorothy,
How do you deal with children who don't do their best? What do you do to instill the value of hard work in your students? I never expected to have first graders in my class who aren't there to learn! I was never like that!
- First year Teacher

Some students (like you!) are fortunate enough to learn, early on, that their success in school is directly connected to their effort.  Others, however, need to be taught this concept.  

Some students believe that the children who do well in school are "just smarter."  Some actually believe that there is some kind of luck about doing well in school - these are often the same students who blame their teachers for their poor grades.

All children need to know that
Trying Their Best is what makes them smarter and more successful.  

If your students aren't giving their best efforts, stop for a moment and teach them the connection.  Notice aloud those students who are doing well at something, and recognize how hard they are working at it.  Remind them all that they too can have remarkable work, if they try their best.

They can all learn that learning isn't magic, luck, or the domain of only a few.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How can I stop a class clown from cutting up?

Ms. Dorothy,
How do I curb my 5 year old's tendency to be the class clown without crushing his spirit?  Any suggestions?
- Mom of a Kindergarten boy

If your son is any good at being a cut-up in school, he probably has some real leadership skills waiting to be refined.  The last thing anyone should be doing is crushing that spirit.

If he is charming and the teacher can't resist him, and thinks of him as clever and funny, he has the potential to be a charismatic leader.  If the teacher gets frustrated and annoyed with him, he has the potential to be a dynamic and challenging leader.  

The world needs more of both.  

Your son needs direction and guidance about how to direct this powerful energy.  He needs to know that he is a great and natural leader, and that others listen to him, laugh with him, and are drawn to him because he is rare and remarkable.  And he needs to know that "with great power comes great responsibility."  

He needs to know that he can, and should, use his power for good.

Talk to his teacher about finding appropriate outlets for him to lead the class where he can have real control.  

Get the class singing a chant, and let him orchestrate; directing one section to get louder and another to get quieter, directing the group when to stop.  Let him create a new rule for a song or game that the class already knows, and let him explain his new (probably silly) rule and lead the class in playing his way.  Have him make up new words to add to the end of a chant the class already knows.  

Ask his teacher to give him opportunities to make the class laugh when it isn't a disruption. 
Knowing that he will have the chance to exert that kind of control once in a while will be a powerful carrot for the other times when the teacher needs to be in charge.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How do I help my child with writing?

Ms. Dorothy,
My son's report card said he should "write every day about himself."  Why would a 6 year old need to write about himself every day?  What is he supposed to be writing?  How do I help him if I don't understand the directions?
- Kindergarten Dad

It is wonderful that you want to help your son work on this.  His teacher will probably have some specific instructions that will help you to reach this goal, so make an appointment right away to discuss it.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is that they should write what they know. For very young children who are beginning to write, this will mostly look like writing about what happens in their daily lives.  

Kindergarten is a time for learning to draw with details. Drawing real people, places and events gives them material to begin writing about.  

Things your son has experienced first hand will be easiest to recall and describe, and are probably the stories most important to him.

A story as simple as "I went to the store with my Dad.  We bought a toy.  I like it."  gives your child opportunity to learn a great deal about the construction of  a word, a sentence, and a story, and will become a story he can recall and therefore "read" back.  

Anything your son draws or writes will help him to grow.  Find out what the teacher is hoping for with this report card comment so that your work at home aligns with what is being taught in the classroom.

Monday, January 3, 2011

How do I know how much homework to give?

Ms. Dorothy,
As a parent, I've often felt that a teacher gave too much, or not enough homework for my child.  Tomorrow I step into the lead teacher position in a classroom, and I find myself wondering how to strike that balance for the 27 children in my 1st grade class.  Any suggestions?
-New Teacher

Congratulations on taking the lead teacher position!  How exciting for you and for those 1st graders!  

Finding the right balance of homework is always a challenge because our tendency, as teachers, is to be "fair" and give everyone the same homework assignments.  

Homework should be about practicing what is learned in school.  It is rare when a majority of the  class is ready to independently practice the same thing at the same time, so having the same homework assignment for all of them doesn't always make sense.  

Consider the time that will be spent on each task, and the amount of support that each child will need to complete the work.  Whenever possible, make options to extend or simplify the assignment so that it can be catered to specific needs of different children.

Keep in mind the 10 minute rule of thumb for elementary students and think about giving homework that is open-ended and involves some choice.  That way students who are inspired by the topic can get carried away, and students that are able to turn it into something they are excited about can do that too.

Encourage creativity and applaud inventiveness in the way homework is completed, and your students will make projects of their practice.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How do I choose the best education for my kids?

Ms. Dorothy,
My husband struggled in school because he learns best by actually doing things. Just listening or watching doesn't help him, so he hated and eventually quit school. We are concerned that if our kids are like him, that they might have a hard time with school. Should we home school so that we make sure they DO things instead of just having to read about them?
- A Mom

Your husband is not alone. Some people are able to learn and remember despite the handicap of having material presented only by lecture and text.

Those who are most successful at this kind of learning often end up going into education and perpetuating that model.

The truth is that the human brain remembers most what it is actively involved in. Recent research has proven as much, but we all know that the things we remember most vividly are those things we got to DO in school.

The decision to use a particular model of schooling is one that a family makes best when they have carefully examined all the options available to them.

Linking that decision to how your children learn best is a great place to start, but don't assume that, because your husband struggled, your children will.

The poor teaching model that he suffered from is not the only form of education out there.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

How do I know when to leave my kids alone?

Ms. Dorothy,
At what age should I let my children start walking home from school alone? And along these same lines, at what age are most children old enough to be home, unsupervised?
- Mom of five

As long as you are making this decision based on your child's readiness (not your convenience), you should be able to ask them when they feel ready.

Start small; give them a way to contact you (and a back-up plan), a friend to walk with, and try it in stages.

Every child is different, as is every neighborhood and every family's comfort level. Don't do anything you, or they, are not comfortable with.

Some schools have policies about how old a child has to be to walk home with friends or siblings, and some cities have regulations about leaving a child home alone. Check with yours, and then do what feels right.