Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Peer Pressure

I'll admit it... I tweet. I joined the "Twitterverse" a few years ago and have recently made a concerted effort to use Twitter more in my professional work with students and families. ( in case you're wondering...)

A few weeks ago, I was intrigued by a tweet from @BookQuotes: You can’t soar like an eagle when you hang out with turkeys. I was immediately struck by this poignant, philosophical use of 140 characters or less.

As I reflected on these 60 characters, I couldn't help but apply them not only to my own life, but to the lives of my kids. Especially as they're beginning a new school year. As a mom... I want to steer my kids towards eagles, not turkeys. (And more importantly, I want my kids to be eagles themselves.)

Luckily my kids are blessed to be surrounded by great peers, many of whom I know or am getting to know their parents. Their school works to foster parent involvement and to support parent-teacher communication. But, despite my best efforts now to control their immediate environments, as they grow and develop into more dynamic and independent individuals, there will come a day when the choice will be theirs: the eagle or the turkey?

To help your kids (from preschool to high school) soar despite peer and societal pressures, consider these tips for promoting self-discipline and personal discernment:
Communicate continuously. Know who your kids are with and what they're doing. Ask about their day, their friends, their interests. Make time to meet your child's friends and their parents. Be a class chaperone, host a play date, or attend sporting events and practices. Meet your child's teachers and coaches. When it comes to your kids, get in the loop and stay in the loop.
Convey your expectations. When your kids know what you expect, they're more likely to act accordingly both in and away from your presence. Children develop the ability to reason around age 5, but they understand rules (spoken and unspoken) much earlier. For example, my kiddos are quick to let a sitter (or grandparent!) know if a TV show comes on that isn't allowed. Or they're quick to point out if they hear a word that's not okay to use at our house. For better or worse, the external dialogue that you have with your children about what is and isn't acceptable becomes their inner voice. As they grow, this inner voice becomes their conscience that governs their choices when you're not around.
Encourage positive choices. Be sure that you're giving credit and praise when it's due. When children are small, recognize and celebrate the little milestones. Sharing with a friend, being quiet in the library, helping a sibling without being asked (or maybe after being asked a dozen times!). Nevertheless, praise their effort! All too often parents (myself included) are quick to point out the negatives -- What not to do -- but don't celebrate the positives as much as we should. It's far easier to do more of what works than it is to change what doesn't. As your child ages and matures, they'll notice that you notice.
Thought for today: Eagle or Turkey?
Practicing What I Preach: This past year we moved mid-school year. (It's not something I'd recommend if you can help it!) Needless to say, we all had to adjust and adapt to our new environments... which included making new friends. Now, believe it or not, I'm an introvert at heart. I'd rather give a lecture to 200 people than chit-chat with a select few. Thankfully the novelty of our move has worn off and we're beginning a new school year on Day #1. My resolution: To move outside of my comfort zone and volunteer more in my kids' classes beginning with my new role as a Room Representative (with duties such as calling and emailing the parents to organize class parties and events). Sure my schedule is booked to the max... but that's all the more reason for me to get in the loop and stay in the loop where my kids are concerned. I want them to know that I'm never too busy to keep an eye on what's going on in their lives.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Improving Focus and Attention

Last weekend I charged my husband with sitting down with our 6-year-old to work on her first homework assignment of the school year. (Yes, an assignment before school has officially started!) It was time to tackle the Back-to-School packet our daughter received in the mail and I had a project to finish for work. So, the hubs was on Daddy-Duty. Mission: Help our daughter write and illustrate a 3-4 sentence story about something fun she did this summer. Piece of cake, right?

Not so much.

Although I was in another room with my computer and coffee, even Pandora wasn't powerful enough to drown out the wails coming from our breakfast table. If you'll recall from my last post when I discussed my daughter's quest towards the Marbles Museum, she perceives schoolwork as a punishment. This assignment was no exception. There were tears. And outbursts. And many tries and attempts... But when all was said and done, the story just didn't get written that morning.

Technically we're on Day 17 of our 21-day Summer Slide project. So far my kiddo has earned 11 tokens towards her reward. And while we're not quite ready to visit the Marbles Museum this weekend as planned, we will go as soon as she hits token #21. Consistency is key, I keep telling myself.  Some progress is better than no progress. (And I'm proud to say that my kiddo wrote her story today. She just needed to do it at her pace...)

My daughter, like some 5.2 million children between the ages of 3 and 7 in the United States, struggles to pay attention. Her inability to focus sometimes interferes with her ability to learn. I have little doubt that this has contributed to her negative perception of schoolwork. Prayerfully this school year will be different. And the 11 Smiley Faces she's earned over these past two weeks represent an encouraging shift in the right direction.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, most children with attention deficit disorders face one of three types of ADHD: (1) an inability to pay attention; (2)  hyperactivity/impulsivity; or (3) a combination of the two. If your child struggles with one of these three types, there are some things that you can do to help.
  • A - Activity
The same child who finds it difficult to pay attention during class likely has little trouble paying attention when watching their favorite TV show or playing a fun iPad app. But too much screen time can intensify ADHD symptoms throughout the day. Children need physical activity -- not just for their bodies, but for their minds. Research shows as little as 20 minutes of consecutive exercise can improve a child's ability to concentrate. 
  • D - Discretion
As a parent, using discretion is crucial. Set limits on screen time, on the types of TV shows watched, and on the type and length of computer and video games played.  Set limits on extra-curricular activities. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and a well-balanced diet.  Pay attention to your child's stress level and emotions. When life gets off-balance for a child, their ADHD symptoms can worsen.
  • H - Hope
It's easy to become frustrated with your child when he or she has an attention deficit disorder. But when you're frustrated, your child becomes frustrated too. This trickle-down effect can be discouraging for a child who may internalize their attention deficit as a personal deficit, which is not the case. Make sure to encourage your child in their journey.  Be their champion.
  • D - Dedication
Parenting is a lifelong process. Be dedicated to the journey. When all is said and done, I pray my kiddos look back and realize how dedicated we were to them. Everyone (myself included) has good days and not-so-good days. And our daughter's concentration-related struggles are such a minor blip in the bigger picture. As parents, we are dedicated to seeing her through "this" (even if,  *gulp,* it continues to high school graduation and beyond).  Just as we're dedicated to championing for our son's food allergy.  Any and all.  And everything in between.
Thought for today:  Of all the voices that play in your child's head, is the loudest voice they hear yours?  Are you cheering them on or wearing them down?

Practicing What I Preach:
  • Activity - When my kiddo loses focus during "learning" time, we head outside to run sprints. My daughter runs from one end of our fenced-in yard to the other 3 times, for a total of 6 "laps" (There's no particular formula -- that's just her favorite number now because she's 6 years old). We make exercise fun, sometimes by racing her, or by cheering her on. She loves being active and is not only more focused when we resume homework time, she's in a better mood too.
  • Discretion - We have become pretty strict lately about enforcing our daughter's 8pm bedtime. She needs her sleep and concentrates better the next day when she's well-rested. We're also trying hard to become more mindful of her diet and in making sure she starts the day with healthy proteins, which aid in optimal brain functioning. 
  • Hope - Above everything (and all frustrations aside), we want our daughter to know how much we believe in her. Sure we want her to do well in school, but in that quest, we don't want her to become discouraged. Offering encouragement and praise is vital. While we're working hard to strengthen certain academic areas, we purposefully recognize and celebrate what our daughter does well (she is the trendiest little fashionista you've ever met; she's a sweet and caring friend; she's welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful; she's creative and talented in all things art-related, etc., etc.).  
  • Dedication - I'm learning to change my tactics... "Formal" learning isn't fun to my daughter. So, I'm dedicated to making it as fun as I can by showing her how to apply what she's learning to her everyday life. For example, instead of just practicing a handwriting sheet, I recently helped her write a letter to her grandmother in Kentucky. We then stamped, addressed, and mailed it (with a "please write back" included). My daughter was thrilled last week to find a handwritten reply awaiting her in the mailbox.  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tackling the Summer Slide

August.  It's synonymous with the end of the summer and the return of school.  And as per my soon-to-be first grader, it also means the return of stressful, busy weeknights of dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime routines that are typically so taxing on my husband and me that we're in bed shortly after the kids go to sleep...  And that was just with kindergarten.

You see, my daughter has a love-hate relationship with school.  She LOVES all social aspects of formal education, but struggles with, well, formal education itself.  She just doesn't like to learn if it means sitting down at a desk, writing, being quiet, and focusing.  She thinks homework is punishment (her words), and because somewhere along the way she equated the word "school" with "playtime,"  she was disheartened when kindergarten included actual schoolwork.

This attitude towards learning is foreign territory for me.  I loved (and still love) school.  Which likely explains why I've chosen a profession in higher education.  As a child, I never had a problem with concentration or focus.  I breezed through any and all assignments, and could sit for hours at a time reading or writing creatively.  But as opposites often attract, I married a man who clearly passed along his genetic distain for all things formal-school-related to our daughter.

When school dismissed for the summer, I gladly welcomed the respite from "formal" school and nightly homework fights.  My daughter started a series of weekly-themed summer camps, which were perfect for her approach to learning: experiential, hands-on, creative, and fun.  She truly enjoys learning about different topics (animals, cooking, drama, gardening, etc.), and soaks up every new fact with intensity and concentration.  But, (there's always a "but"), the fun of summer camp has done little to reinforce her writing, reading, and math skills.  In other words, we've fallen victim to The Summer Slide.

Luckily we've got three weeks to transition our out-of-the-box learner back into a more formal learning routine.  We're tackling the Summer Slide with this responsibility chart.  We are primarily focusing on  the top three goals: (1) Do Homework, (2) Stop Whining, and (3) Show Respect.  For the next three weeks our daughter has the opportunity to earn one Smiley Face a day if she has done these three things.  Each day we'll spend 30 minutes to 1 hour focusing on blending, site words, math, writing, reading, etc.  The catch: She must be a willing, engaged participant (hence the "Stop Whining" and "Show Respect" goals).  At the end of the three weeks, her reward is a Back-to-School Celebration.  She's chosen a family trip to the Marbles Kids Museum as her prize.

Thought for today:  Has your child fallen victim to The Summer Slide too?  If so, what are you doing to prepare your child for the upcoming school year?  Together with your child, create a responsibility chart.  You can use a store-bought one like ours, or better yet, make one with craft supplies that you've already got at home.  Stickers or simple checkmarks serve as nice tokens.  Also, allow your child to set a goal to work towards (that's parent-approved).  Great suggestions are rewards that also foster family togetherness: parks, museums, picnics, movie theaters, plays, libraries, etc., or something that reinforces learning like a new book or fun school supplies.
Practicing What I Preach:  We've just started our three-week Summer Slide mission.  And each day hasn't been smooth sailing.  Take yesterday, for example.  While my daughter did her homework, she ended the day with a colossal meltdown (and did not earn her token for the day).  But, as I assured her while tucking her in: Tomorrow is a new day.  You have the chance to start over.  A key to the Responsibility Chart being successful is allowing a child to truly earn his/her reward (this is the concept of Operant Conditioning from PSYC 101).  It teaches kids to take responsibility for their actions and engages them in social and cognitive learning processes.  Hopefully by the end of our three weeks, our kiddo will be more prepared for 1st grade, and we'll get to celebrate her efforts as a family.