Starting at a New School this Fall?

Back to school

Whether your child is starting at a new preschool or elementary school, the first day can be daunting. There are several things you can do over the summer months to help prepare for the first day.

  • Visit the school’s website – Explore the website with your child. Point out pictures of happy children and read about fun yearly activities. Look for pictures of your child’s teacher or classroom.
  • Play on the school’s playground – If it’s available, playing on the school’s playground can build happy memories during the summer that might carry over to the fall.
  • Plan playdates with future classmates – If you have a class list, start contacting families over the summer to play or meet at the pool. If there’s no class list, you might ask neighborhood families if they have or know other children starting at the school. It can be so helpful to see a familiar face on the first day.
  • Attend all back-to-school nights and visit-the-classroom opportunities – This is partly to support your child’s gradual entrance to the new school, and partly to be sure you are an informed parent. Often teachers review school policies and give important information at these events. The more you know about the school the better.
  • Review the drop-off and pick up policies and have a plan for separation as needed – Share the plan for drop-off and pick-up with your child. As best you can, be sure they know where to go and what to do. If your child tends to have separation anxiety, it’s good to know the school’s policy for this as well. Here is a link to a blog post about separation: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/07/23/tips-for-separation-at-the-start-of-the-school-year/. Here is a link to a 20 minute podcast (#341) I gave on managing separation anxiety: http://www.parentsperspective.org/index.php?s=separation.
  • Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines – If you’ve lost a sense of routine, it’s good to rebuild this at least several days before school starts. If children are allowed to stay up late and sleep in the day before school, getting up and getting ready on time can be that much harder. If your kids are grazers over the summer months, it can be helpful to get back to regular meal and snack times as well.
  • Remind them of other positive transitions they’ve made or you’ve made – Remind them how much fun they had when they started at a new camp last summer or when they joined a new soccer team. Tell upbeat stories about when you started school.
  • Read upbeat children’s storybooks about the start of school –   Upbeat books include DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown, What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff,  If You Take a Mouse to School by Numeroff, Kindergarten, Here I Come by Steinberg and Welcome to Kindergarten by Rockwell.

Ideas for Reading Aloud with Older Children

Leisure time for mother and daughter

The Department of Education encourages parents to read aloud to their children 20 minutes a day at a minimum. The idea is to read aloud to them for longer stretches and more often as you are able. It’s also suggested that you continue to read aloud to your children long passed the time you thought they’d listen. Children who read aloud through high school do better on Verbal SATs than those that read to aloud through middle school, and those who read through middle school better than those that do through grade school.

I know most parents reduce their reading aloud time as children become more fluent, independent readers. The trick is to give time for both. When my older daughter wanted time to read to herself, we added that to the bedtime routine rather than replacing our read aloud time. So they got 20 minutes of read aloud, and an additional 20 minutes of reading books independently.

There are lots of good ideas to help read aloud continue:

  • Keep it part of the daily routine – This way you don’t have to find the time each day, it’s already there. It also makes it expected. If you stop reading aloud for a long stretch of time, children may be more hesitant or think “it’s for babies” when you try to start again.
  • Let your children pick the books – At any age, it is helpful if children feel they have some choice in the matter. Letting them pick the books is an easy way to give this. When the girls were little, I’d read the same books 20 nights in a row if that’s what they picked. Now we take turns choosing chapter books. I almost always pick a classic because they never do.
  • Take turns reading aloud – Once they are fluent readers, it can be nice to take turns during this read aloud time.
  • Occasionally read more active participation books – This might be a fill in the blank book or a quiz book. This might be something along the lines of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that let the reader make plot decisions throughout the book.
  • Shake up the types of books – As they are older, some children are drawn to biographies or sports books, others to how-to books or articles from magazines.  You might also try poetry or plays. Any reading is fine.
  • Read picture books longer – Once you start chapter books, it’s good to include picture books occasionally. There are so many picture books that really are aimed at older kids. You might try Stripes or Mr. Peabody’s Apples.
  • Occasionally, read their homework aloud – Not often as they need to be doing this reading, but I think it’s fine once in a while to read their homework aloud. I’ve done this, especially when they are struggling with a topic or the reading seems particularly dry to them.

Any other ideas? Please share them here!

Reasons to Teach Your Children Cursive

The Common Core State Standards, which help to guide what education is provided by our public school system, has left teaching cursive off the list. There are SO MANY REASONS to teach children cursive, and each is as compelling as the next.

Cursive….

  • Helps children with spelling – Because the letters are connected, cursive helps children to learn common letter patterns. It also provides improved muscle memory which reinforces correct spelling over printing the words.
  • Boosts their letter recognition – Cursive heightens the differences between letters that are more similar in print including ‘b’ and ‘d,’ or ‘p’ and ‘q.’ This provides a benefit to early reading skills.
  • Fewer reversals and inversions – As cursive helps differentiate letters, children who learn cursive tend to make fewer reversals and inversions in their writing overtime. Children who rely on printing more commonly make these mistakes and do so over a longer period of time.
  • Additional boosts to reading – When a child prints, they are thinking about reading one letter at a time. Cursive encourage the brain to think about whole words at a time. Reading with fluency requires children to take in and think about whole words.
  • Often more legible than print – Because of the connections between the letters, cursive encourages more spatial planning between letters and words. This focus tends to make a child’s overall writing more legible.
  • Increases their ability to concentrate – As cursive writing takes sustained effort and attention overtime, it gives children active practice at staying on task.
  • Benefits to fine motor and visual-motor coordination – The start and stop movements of printing are very different from the flow of cursive writing. Cursive builds muscle endurance and dexterity beyond printing. These are all skills that are beneficial over their lifetime.
  • Benefits brainstorming and note-taking – As cursive is faster and more efficient, it allows more flexibility in brainstorming and more detail in note-taking. Handwriting lecture notes is better than typing in that the physical process itself supports retaining information.
  • Supports creative writing – Fourth grade students who write stories in cursive tend to write longer stories and express more complex ideas than students who keyboard.
  • Higher SAT scores – As if those weren’t reason enough, it’s reported that students who write the essay portion of the SAT in cursive tend to score higher on that section than students who print. It may be that the writing itself is allowing students more time to focus on content.

Please, encourage your schools to teach your children cursive. If not, teach them cursive at home.

I’d also like to thank my 4th grade teacher Ms. Rhoda-Jo Stress for challenging and not so gently encouraging my cursive.

Easy Ways to Bolster Early Math Skills

One of the easiest ways to support early math development is to build math language into your daily play and conversations with your child. Math language includes numbers, amount, measurement and position words.

  • Numbers – Count napkins as you put them on the table, or count toys as you put them in the toy box. Talk about how many animals you see at the zoo and how many french fries are on their plate.
  • Amount – This includes using descriptors such as some, more, a little, a lot, more than, less than, a couple, a few, several and many.
  • Measurement – Discuss how small, big, short, long, light or heavy things are.
  • Position – This includes words such as in, on, over, under, near, far, above and below.

Other ways to encourage early math skills include:

  • Play board games – Many children’s board games practice early math concepts including Memory, Hi Ho Cheerio, Chutes and Ladders, Colorama and Uno.
  • Talk about the daily math you do – When you go to the grocery store, you may be calculating how much time you have, how much money you have, the weight of fruit and the discount of coupons. The idea is to discuss the basics of this math with your children.
  • Cook together – Most recipes include directions about measurement, temperature and time. Point out and discuss the math as you enjoy cooking together.

Parents, Please Assume Positive Intent from Teachers

Child with teacher drawing in playroom

It’s the start of a new school year. This may be your first year of preschool, or your third year at an elementary school. Wherever your child is in their school career, there is always the possibility of your child having difficulty in the classroom or with the program. When this happens, it is often the teacher bringing the issue to the parents’ attention. Unfortunately many parents first response is to kill the messenger. This is an unproductive way to start. It’s better for parents to take a deep breath and realize the teacher is almost always also working with the child’s best interest at heart. The teacher may be wrong, there may be great disagreements about how to move forward, but they are likely coming from a good place. Believe me, I preach this to teachers as well. Parents almost always are working with good intent.

When I taught preschool full-time, we had a three-and-a-half year old that was exhausted and fell asleep the minute he laid down at naptime everyday. By state guidelines, he was not to be given any activity for the first 30 minutes to keep him awake, and was then allowed, if he fell asleep, to sleep the full two hour rest period. This made the parents unhappy because on days he slept the full two hours, he was wide awake at home until 11:00 p.m. despite the consistent 9:00 p.m. tuck-in time. On weekends, he didn’t nap, made it through the day and fell asleep easily at 9:00pm. The teachers weren’t trying to make life harder for this family, they were following the state guidelines. The parents weren’t trying to ruin the teacher’s or their child’s day, they wanted a bit of sanity in the evenings at home. Sure, it’s a difficult situation, and one that didn’t work itself out until the child was in an older classroom with shorter nap requirements, but teachers assuming parents want to exhaust the child and parents assuming teachers are just being rigid wouldn’t help the matter.

When there is a disagreement with teachers or the school, it is also good practice for parents to use their most positive language when speaking about this in front of their children. If they are at all aware of the situation (and they are), it is best for parents to say things like, “we are working this out with your teacher. She is being helpful,” or, “we’ll make a good plan with the school. These things take time,” rather than throwing the teacher or school under the bus. However it works out, your child will likely be with the teacher in some way moving forward, and you want them to keep a positive attitude with that teacher in particular and about school in general in the long run.

Ways to Avoid Summer Academic Loss

Sisters reading book in summer park

Many studies site that children have an average of a two month academic loss over the summer months. With a little effort, you save their hard gained knowledge and may even help them make gains! Here are some ideas to support them while still having fun:

  • Practice school skills in real life – If your second grader was learning to count money, make them the “family cashier” for the summer. Stop using your cards and carry cash, let them count the money to and from at each transaction.
  • Play school – Little ones may willingly take turns being the teacher and the student. When they are the teacher, ask them to explain a math skill they recently learned. When they are the student, ask them to read aloud to the class.
  • Take field trips – My family is lucky to live in the Washington D.C. area. We have the Smithsonian Museums, National Zoo, Virginia battlefields and Baltimore Aquarium all within an hour drive. Within a day trip we can travel to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Island and fantastic museums in Philadelphia. Take advantage of academically related field trips in your community.
  • Take nature walks – There is so much to be learned in the world around us. Summer is the perfect time to get them out in nature. A great book about this is Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Louv.
  • Make writing fun – When you travel, encourage them to write post cards and keep a daily vacation journal. Provide other writing activities like invisible books, spirograph, stencils, mazes and Mad Libs.
  • Challenge math in everyday ways – Talk about the math involved when you pump gas. For older children, teach them to calculate miles per gallon since the last fill up.  If you eat out, teach them to calculate the tip. Take them bowling and teach them to keep score.
  • Read aloud everyday – Reading aloud to children everyday is sited by the Department of Education as the single most important activity to build successful readers. Aim for 20 minutes a day and enjoy when it’s longer. Read aloud to them through high school if they’ll listen.
  • If they are reading aloud – Encourage children to practice their own read aloud skills. This can be reading to a sibling, to the dog or even a stuffed animal.
  • Encourage quiet reading time everyday – Again, aim for 20 minutes and appreciate when it lasts longer. Make this easy for them, bring books in the car or let them stay up later at night if they are reading.
  • Plan a book club – If they are at all interested, invite a few friends to read the same book with them. Then plan a party to celebrate.
  • Investigate library activities – Public libraries in our area host many fun children’s programs in the summer months. They also have a children’s reading challenge that ends with earning a coupon book for area businesses. Check out your local library!
  • Focus on vocabulary when you travel – There is new vocabulary available everywhere you travel. Discuss all the things you see with your children, provide definitions as you are able. There is beach vocabulary, zoo vocabulary, farm vocabulary, airport vocabulary…
  • Puzzles, board games, cooking and crafts – Play provides learning opportunities such as puzzles for spatial reasoning, board games for social skills and often math skills, cooking and crafts for following directions, tending to details, math and fine motor skills. Spend time this summer playing with your children.
  • Workbooks – My least favorite, but probably most reliable, way to do a little summer review work is workbooks. My children didn’t mind the Summer Bridge Activities workbooks. http://www.summerbridgeactivities.org/

Please share your own ideas below!

Ideas for Introducing Chapter Books

Chapter books can be a great addition to your read aloud time as early as three to four years old. If you already read picture books before bed, the easiest way to introduce chapter books is to finish your picture book and tuck them in like normal. Then, when you would have been turning out the light and leaving, announce that you are going to add a special reading time. Let them know this is a book with no pictures, that they should lay down in bed, listen to the story and can make the pictures in their imagination. Next read for a few pages or more. When you finish reading, maybe review what just happened in the story, ask them what they think will happen next or another question about the story. If they are unable to answer a question, just tell them briefly what you liked about the story or what you think might happen next.

The next night read a picture book, tuck them in then let them know you are going to read again. Spend a minute or so reviewing what happened the night before. Each night it can be helpful to talk about the story or ask what might happen next when you finish the reading time. Each night when you start, review from the previous night. When children are very young, you have to read some every night consistently. If you miss a few days, likely they will lose track of the story.

As they grow, you can read longer each night and longer stories over time. The idea is to read aloud to them long passed the point you thought they’d listen. Read aloud through high school if they will listen. Children who read aloud through high school tend to do better on verbal SATs than children who read aloud through middle school, and middle school better than elementary school. Unfortunately, most parents stop once children are reading to themselves. It’s better to build some read aloud and some independent reading time into the bedtime routine. There are benefits to both. It can also be nice to let older children pick the chapter books or alternate who picks.

Helping Children Learn to Make Decisions

Hi Dr. Rene,
I have a third grader who, at times, seems to be paralyzed by indecision. Here is a typical situation: each week his teacher sends home a homework packet that requires two reading and writing activities. He is given ten activities to choose two from (e.g., write a letter to the librarian telling her why she should get this book). Although he reads for at least 30 minutes a night, he has difficulty choosing what book to base an activity on and then choosing an activity. He asks us for help, and we will suggest a book he has just read  and a potential activity or two, but that never seems to help. He will spend a half hour to an hour fretting about what to do and sometimes ends up in tears. What is the best way for us to support him in this situation? He is a good reader and grasps what he is reading, but this particular activity is very draining for him.
Thank you for your advice,
Cindy

Hi Cindy,
I would focus first on teaching him decision making separate from homework time. Start small, each day give him choices like apples or oranges for snack, or playing monopoly or clue with you. Continually offer very small choices. When you are in the car, a book on tape or music, tucking in this story or that. When he is able to make small choices, occasionally comment, “you decided that by yourself,” “I saw you think about it and decide on this story,” or ask, “how did you make that decision so easily? What helped you decide?” Talk with him through his decision making process.

When a choice is too difficult, focus on helping him weigh his options. Remind him of the high and low points of each choice, remind him how or what he chose last time or how it worked out. If he really can’t decide whether you choose for him or not, I would ask him to let you know one thing he liked about each of the options and why he might have chosen each one later. This is still teaching him to look at the details.

Gradually work your way up to bigger decisions such as who to invite over to play or which after school activity to sign-up for. Afterwards talk about how either decision would have it’s benefits. With homework specifically, maybe talk about what types of projects he’s enjoyed doing before or what types of projects tend to get the best grades. You might take a list of ten projects and whittle it down to the top three. If they truly are equal choices to him, or he wrestles with the decision among the top three for more than a few minutes, teach him how to make the arbitrary decisions like flipping a coin or assigning numbers and rolling a die, at this age even eeny-meeny-miney-mo works.

I would also try to find fun ways to practice like the Choose Your Own Adventures storybooks that were popular in the 80s and 90s. These are read aloud chapter books where every few pages children get to choose the direction of the plot. Encourage him to pick the ice cream flavor at the grocery store or the next family outing to take. Think of fun ways to practice choices often.

If it really is more narrowly related to academics and homework, it may be that he is perfectionistic or stressed about academic performance. If this seems to be the issue, I would learn more about perfectionistic tendencies and talk to his teacher about the academic worries. Ask if he struggles this way in the classroom as well.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Best New Learning Builds on Previous Knowledge

When your child is challenged by a new problem, the idea is to remind them of what they already know and build from there. This can help make the task seem more manageable and provide a familiar strategy.

Let’s say your child has mastered 25 piece puzzles, and they are starting on a 60 piece puzzle for the first time. If they get to a point of frustration, you might remind them of previous strategies such as, “I remember the last puzzle, you started by finding all the edge pieces.” This helps them to break the big task into smaller tasks, and puts them on a familiar path towards problem solving.

When your third grader is starting to learn her multiplication tables, you might start by showing her how multiplication is repeat addition. She’s already mastered addition, so multiplication may seem a more managable task this way.

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

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