A Parent’s Back To School

At the start of the school year, it’s not just the kids who face an adjustment—parents do too. From homework to teacher conference to after-school activities, this time of year can be overwhelming and chaotic.

But don’t despair—help is right around the corner! Join me, along with five other parent coaches, on Friday, Sept. 15, for A Parent’s Back to School Facebook Party, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:10 p.m. Eastern time. Here’s the lineup of topics each coach will discuss, along with giveaways and answering audience questions. Note: All times are Eastern time.

5:30 to 6 p.m. Coach introductions—the giveaways start.
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Parent Coach Laura Gray on Getting Your School Day Off to a Great Start
6:30 to 7 p.m. Parent Coach Susan Morley on Creating a Family Mission Statement
7 to 7:30 p.m. Parent Coach Trinity Jensen on Avoiding Homework Hassles
7:30 to 8 p.m. Parent Coach Sarah Hamaker on Scheduling Your School Year
8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Parent Coach Liz Mallet on How to Avoid Micromanaging
8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Parent Coach Wendy Faucett on How to Have a Great Parent-Teacher Relationship
9 to 9:10 p.m. Final thoughts.

On Friday, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1892016571016178 to join the fun–you can ask questions, interact with the coaches or just enjoy the party. Hope to see you all soon!

 

Back to School for Parents

School all over the country is either in session or about to start, which means parents are gearing up for another academic calendar year much like their children. Here are some back-to-school tips for parents.

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  1. Don’t project. Whether you loved school or hated it or fell somewhere in between, parents should try to keep their own thoughts about school to themselves, especially the first few weeks. We can’t predict how the school year will go, so encouraging a child to have an open mind is the best thing we can give them.
  2. Don’t worry. All too often, if something goes wrong the first few weeks of school, we’re off worrying about the entire year. Kids pick up on our anxiety, so stay calm and remember that the school year is long and things can turn around for your child.
  3. Remember who is going to school. Hint: It’s not you. Your child is the one who needs to learn to navigate the school, teachers, classes and homework, and your child should shoulder that responsibility.
  4. Offer guidance at a distance. Don’t get overly involved in homework, etc. Provide structure when necessary but avoid becoming essential to the task or solution to academic problems.
  5. Emphasize your expectations. I’m not talking about grades, but about the kind of student you want your child to be. We’ve always told our kids that they should not be the reason a teacher can’t teach—that they should behave in the classroom. We’ve also told them that we expect them to do their best in school, but that we realize that will look different on a report card from child to child and subject to subject.
  6. Provide support at home. Through interest in their schooling to a good place to do homework to helping them develop an inquiring mind, let them know you’re invested in their academic success.
  7. Be true to their school. Help their school succeed too by volunteering where you can, being responsive with paperwork and teacher requests, and supporting the school in the community.
  8. Encourage reading. Whether it’s a magazine or the local team’s stats in the newspaper or a book, promoting reading will help your child grow and prosper.

What else would you add to this list? How do you prepare for back to school?

High Schoolers & The Internet

Q: Please help me navigate the Internet access issue for high schoolers. I know it’s recommended for kids to do their homework in their own rooms (so they know they are responsible), but I also know they shouldn’t have TVs and Internet access in their rooms. We don’t have TVs in bedrooms, but high schoolers require laptops with Internet access to check homework given, do research, and some online program/assignments. I know my teenagers also view content that is not beneficial and is time wasting in addition to homework. What do you recommend?

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A: We’ve never required our kids to do their homework in their rooms simply because with four kids, each share a room and there’s simply no space for a desk or other surface conducive to homework in their bedrooms. But we still apply the principle in that we ignore their homework—it is their responsibility completely. As soon as they were reading well (sometime in first grade), we stopped helping them on a regular basis. We do allow the occasional question, and have clearly communicated that we will not run out and buy X, Y or Z for a last-minute project.

So our kids do their homework at the dining room table (we have an open floor plan) and the computers available to our middle schoolers for homework are centralized to the kitchen/dining /living room area. This allows us to keep an eye on what they’re doing, looking at, etc., but we steer clear of involvement. This has helped immensely with them not trying to sneak watching things and it has helped us monitor computer usage in general.

Our computer usage rules are simple: Three hours a day to include homework time and the computers are off limits at 7 p.m. each evening (well, we allow a little extra on Friday nights!). This means that they must have homework that needs to be done online finished by 7 p.m. each evening.

I share that to help you devices your own computer/electronic device policy. In my experience, having a set “off” time each evening will be more effective than telling them when to do their homework. Have them move their laptops to a central area so you can keep an eye on what they’re doing (or not doing). Also have a docking station for all electronic devices to be plugged in and left overnight to avoid the temptation to check who’s texting who at 3 a.m.

They may complain that it’s not enough time for them to do their homework, to which you shrug and say that you hope they will figure out how to make it work because that’s the new shutoff time. Then stick with it, even though they will probably come to you in a panic a time or two saying they haven’t finished. When they do, point out that they can certainly get up earlier to finish before school!

And practice good device usage yourself. It’s one thing to insist on down time from electronics for your kids and another to not put down the devices yourself. Develop technology free zones, such as during dinner and on Sundays, to help kids stay connected to the family and the real world.

Homework Hassles

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is not doing her homework by herself. I have to remind her to do it, and she is always complaining and trying to find something else to do. She can pass two hours on one line of math problems. I know that she has some difficulties, but I always have to fight or remind her to do the work. I remind her I can help her to revise her writing and math but not when I am cooking dinner and not two minutes before going to bed the night before.

It’s been that way for three years and I am sick to push her. If I don’t tell her, she will not think about the work and will not do it. I have tried for two months and no success. 

Do you have any suggestions? She is not concentrating on anything she is doing. She is bright and very talented, but she is not concentrating on anything.

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A: Until she starts caring more about her homework than you do, nothing’s going to change. You can’t make her care and you can’t make her do it. However, you can make her life uncomfortable enough that she’ll decide to straighten up herself.

How to accomplish that? By moving the homework monkey off your back and onto hers. I’d start with a chat with her teacher. Tell the teacher that Daughter has not been doing her homework on her own and that you will not be helping her complete it any longer. Explain that you fully expect teacher to give Daughter the grade and enact any consequences for not completing the work—and that you will support teacher in this matter.

Then sit Daughter down and tell her that you’re sorry you’ve been too involved with her homework, that from now on, her homework is her responsibility entirely. She must have her homework done by X time each evening (at least 90 minutes before bed would be good), that you will not sign any school papers after that time, and that she can ask you one homework-related question per week.

Then step back and let her handle it. Sure, she will likely NOT do her homework…but wouldn’t you rather her learn time management and how to motivate herself when the stakes are low in elementary school? This is a problem that will only grow bigger the longer you enable her in this matter.

One further thought: One of the reasons teachers assign homework is to see what kids are learning and retaining in class. Parents who hover and correct a child’s homework until the work is done to perfection are not allowing the teacher to see what the child might be struggling with and what the child has mastered. Teachers have a pretty good idea as to what lessons might need reinforcement when children do their own homework.

Playing School

Q: My 9-year-old son is getting in trouble at school for playing games. He has also started missing assignments. He went to his room at 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday evening for the remainder of the day. On Sunday, he had to sit in our formal living room for two hours to think about his choices. He has had no electronics of any kind, and still went back to school and played the games again. What more punishment will work?

A: You’ve fallen into the trap most parents stumble into at one point or another: looking for the magic bullet consequence to get a kid to change his behavior. But the fact of the matter is, there is no one perfect punishment that will make your son stop playing games at school when he’s supposed to be doing something else.

That’s because he doesn’t care about stopping that behavior.

Let me put it this way: Until Son cares about not playing games at school, he’s not going to change his behavior.

But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to influence him to change his ways with consequences. Parents should continue to do the right thing even when a child does the wrong thing. This is one of the hardest lessons for moms and dads to learn, because we want to fix the problem immediately. We want Junior to straighten up and fly right. And most of the time, children whose parents are consistent in applying punishments (but inconsistent with what those punishments are) will behave themselves. Not always, not all the time, but most of the time.

Image courtesy of nalinratphi/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now, back to your son and his game playing at school. You don’t mention what the response of his teacher has been to his playing games, and you don’t mention what kind of games he’s able to play during class without the teacher noticing (which I assume is happening). Without some of these facts, I’m not sure how helpful I can be in addressing this problem.

So here’s a starting point. Use something like the report card method. Each day, your son has to bring home a piece of paper with either a Yes or No written and signed by his primary teacher. A Yes means he can go about his day normally. A No means he’s on lock down—restricted to his room without any of his toys, games, music, etc., and to bed very early (like 6 p.m.).

To get a Yes, he has to complete and turn in all assignments due that day or given in class to do, and to stay on task (no game playing, etc.). If he misses just one assignment or fails to stay on task, he gets a No for the day. He automatically gets a No if he fails to bring home the paper for any reason.

Each day starts new, with no carryovers from the previous day. Furthermore, you are only to ask about the report—not if he has homework, was on task, etc.

Plus, you support whatever the teacher or school wants to do in terms of punishment for his playing games in class. It’s essential to know that you are not going to bail him out for his own mistakes.

This might take a while to resolve itself, but consistence on your part without drama or overreaching to “make him care,” should get through to Son and provide enough of an impetus to change his game-playing ways.

Is the Pen Mightier Than a First Grader’s Attitude?

Q: My 7-year-old first grader received notice that he did not meet district standards for penmanship/writing the past two quarters on his report card. I have printed out worksheets for him to copy what direction pencil strokes should be made, but he just throws a fit and cries rather than try to work through the worksheets. We practice spelling words 15 minutes a day, five days  a week. He seems to have a laissez fair attitude about most things and seems to just not care. He is a left-handed writer. He could put more care into how he holds his pencil. He could put more effort into it. I ask him to leave a space the size of two fingers between words and he doesn’t. How can I get him to care? BTW, his reading level is ahead of his peers.

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A: I don’t think you’ll like this, but the short answer is you can’t get him to care about something he doesn’t want to care about. This is true of the child who is 7, 10, 15 or 26. You can’t make anyone care about something, so stop trying to make him “care.” He’s not going to, and the more you pressure him to care, the more he will dig in his heels and refuse. Save yourself some angst and quit trying to make the kid care.

Now, about that not meeting district standards. Our school system also has the same “grading” system that you refer to, and I get that you’re concerned about his “failure” to improve his handwriting. But good grief, Mom, he’s seven. He’s left-handed. He’s reading well above his peers. What more do you want from a first grader???

If you want him to begin to hate school and learning, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you want him to love school and learning, I recommend implementing the following changes pronto.

  1. Stop making him practice spelling 15 minutes every day. His time after school would be much better spent playing outside, jumping on a mini trampoline inside, reading for fun, etc. In other words, doing typical boy things (but without electronics) for most of his time at home after school. Don’t think of him as “wasting time”—there have been numerous studies that show the value of free play in a child’s overall mental, social and spatial/motor skills development. This is part of his job as a kid—to decompress, to let off steam, to figure out how the world works, so don’t deny him a good healthy dose of play each day.
  2. Let go of your expectations for “grades” at this age. It sounds like he’s doing very well overall, so please, stop harping about his handwriting! Sure, leave the handwriting worksheets around, but don’t make him do them. Again, at his age, his motor skills have probably not caught up with his brain, so forming proper letters is probably frustrating and hard for him. He’ll outgrow this—but he won’t outgrow the resentment and stress of your standing over him making him do handwriting worksheets.
  3. Get some perspective. He’s not going to fail first grade because he gets consistent low marks in handwriting. My youngest son went through the same thing in first grade and he still gets the occasional low marks related to handwriting in the third grade. While he has improved, we didn’t make it the be-all, end-all of his academic career in first grade (or second grade, or third grade…). We focused instead on helping him to care about doing his work to best of his ability, to follow the teacher’s instructions, etc. In other words, we’re more focused on ensuring he becomes a good student, not that his work receives high marks.
  4. Think of the future. Some people simply don’t have good handwriting. While penmanship is important, it’s not the most important thing your son will learn or accomplish. Think more about the kind of person you want him to be at age 30 than on the fact that he got several low marks in handwriting at the age of 7.
  5. Finally, make it fun. Last summer, I bought my son a handwriting book for boys so that he could practice on his own. Writing things like “Girls are weird” and other boy-things was fun for him. I didn’t hound him about practicing in the book, and I did catch him a time or two doing it on his own. Usually, my kids all participate in a writing club during the summer, where they spend time writing stories together. Those kind of things are low-key and provide practice in a non-academic, low-stakes atmosphere.

A Manageable Routine for a Teen

Q: I need help regarding the evening routine for my 16-year-old daughter, after she arrives home after her sport, which is usually 5 p.m., during the week. She has ADHD and says she needs to decompress when she gets home before launching into chores/homework. That has translated into procrastination on phone/computer, getting homework done too late, or maybe not completed and getting to bed too late. She doesn’t have a bedtime—as she says, “Mom, don’t you think I want to go to sleep? I will go to bed, when all my work is done.”

I want to take electronics away for a certain amount of time at night. But then she says she needs her devices to do homework. Can I make her go to bed at a particular time? She takes rigorous courses and does have a lot of work, she just doesn’t manage her time well.

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A: I can tell by your question that this is a topic that has gone round and round between you and your daughter without any changes or resolution on either side. I do have some advice, but I’m not sure it will be what you want to hear because simply put: The only person in this equation who you can change is you. But changing how you approach this will help your relationship with your daughter and help her to take full responsibility for her time. However, if you follow my advice, you might not see any improvement in the current situation, i.e., how your daughter manages her time, but you will see improvement in your own stress about the matter.

One thing to note first: We all handle transitions differently. Some of us can move smoothly from one task or situation to another, while others need mini-breaks to transition from school to home. You might see her decompression time as wasteful, but it might be what she needs to clear her brain from the school day and focus on the afternoon/night ahead.

Those disclaimers out of the way, here’s what I would do (and do with my own middle schoolers who have homework on the computer): You have an end time when everything electronic is shut down for the night, including personal devices (phones), etc. Decide on what that time will be. For the sake of this answer, we’re going with 9 p.m.

Then tell your daughter that you’re sorry you’ve been trying to manage her time for her, that you are giving that back to her. You will not be asking her about homework or what she’s doing. After she expresses her delight in this, inform her that all electronic devices (computers, laptops, tablets, phones) will be shut down (and turned in to you in the case of the portable ones) by 9 p.m. each evening. Tell her that this is a non-negotiable time. If she hasn’t managed to finish her homework or check in with her friends by 9 p.m., that’s just too bad for her.

Now, be prepared that for the first night (or the first few weeks), she will blithely ignore this and procrastinate as usual. I’d give her a 10-minute warning (maybe set a kitchen timer) at 8:50 p.m. to finish up. Then when 9 p.m. rolls around, you enforce the shut down and confiscate the devices. She will plead, beg, cajole, throw a tantrum, etc., that she “has” to finish XYZ, to which you simply shrug and act very sorry she didn’t have enough time. Remind her she can get up early the next day to finish it before school if she likes, but that’s it for tonight.

The only thing you have to do is brace yourself for the fallout and don’t cave in. The first time will be the hardest but the sky will not fall. Her grades might slip for a short period of time, but you are giving her a lesson that’s worth a few lower grades–the ability to figure out how to manage her time by herself.

Just Because It’s the Right Thing

Q: I have a soon to be 15-year-old son in ninth grade. He is in a scholar program at a private school, and he has earned a partial scholarship based on his academic abilities. He also is in his third year of a gifted math program at a local college. His grades have begun to fluctuate. He is not earning good scores in the math program. He seems to only care about playing his computer, the shooting games popular with his age group. He has only been allowed to play on weekends if his grades are up to par (above a 90%).

He is capable of these grades. So now I have taken all technology away for this upcoming quarter. He says that he doesn’t care anymore if he loses everything. He is not going to improve his grades. I am worried that I am being too excessive. Is the consequence appropriate?

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A: The short answer is yes, taking away technology for the quarter in order to motivate your son to improve his grades is appropriate. However, what your worry indicates is that you assumed that would “make” him change his tune about his grades/schoolwork. He’s doing what any teenager does—testing to see if you’re really serious by saying “he doesn’t care” about the consequence.

You’ve run into the paradox that is parenting: A parent can do the right thing and the child can still do the wrong thing, but that doesn’t mean the parent stops doing the right thing.

You are doing the right thing by taking away his electronics. Now he has a choice—he can continue to thumb his nose at schoolwork and fail even more or he can buckle down and get back to business. He might *say* he doesn’t care, but stick to the plan and he might come around on his accord. Fold now, and he’ll know that you don’t mean what you say or say what you mean. That will cause many more problems in the future than a few dismal grades in the present.

And be prepared that he might flame out entirely. But at 15, he’s old enough to face the academic consequences of that choice. Yes, those consequences could be far-reaching at this stage in his academic career but again, that’s on him, not you. It’s his life and his choice to do the best he can with what God has given him—or to waste it all by not applying himself.

I know this is tough for you to watch, but you’ve done the right thing. Now it’s up to your son.

High School Sisters Struggling With One Class

Q: I was wondering what you would make of this situation. Two of my girls are a senior and junior in high school. Their report cards show that both of them got one grade in the low 70s, while achieving 80s and 90s in the rest of their classes (they each take about 9 classes). So all in all they did pretty well, except that they both failed one class (46 and 24!) in a subject taught by the same teacher (who teaches one subject to the seniors and a different one to the juniors).

Both are conscientious and take school work seriously. Does this reflect the teacher or my kids? I have parent teacher conferences coming up, and I’m trying to decide how to broach this with the teacher.

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A: It could be a bad teacher who simply goes through the motions and doesn’t care if kids get it or not. Or it could be a good teacher who’s teaching a harder subject that the girls maybe thought it would be easier and haven’t applied themselves or asked for extra help until it was too late. I’d ask each girl separately why they think they did so poorly in this class. Just listen without comment, then talk to the teacher.

I would approach it with the teacher in a way that was more puzzlement on your part than questioning the teacher. Something like: “I see that Junior/Senior have been having some struggles in your class, which is unusual for each of them. I’m wondering if you can shed any light on might be the reason. They are both hard workers but I’m concerned they may not be understanding the material or having some other issue/concern that’s hindering their learning.” Then follow up with, “What can Junior/Senior do to improve their grade?”
Of course, a good teacher will respond with an answer that will be helpful, and provide steps for the teen to take to improve, such as after school help, additional online resources/practice problems, etc.
A bad teacher will shrug and say it’s not her fault if kids can’t learn.
Also, talk to some other parents with kids in the same classes too and see if it’s a class wide problem or not. Then you’ll have more info on how to move forward with the girls.

Follow-up from parent: At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher was quite baffled, actually. And so are my girls. We’ll get to the bottom of this, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it, seeing how well they’re doing in all their classes and how hard they’re working. They get home at six every day, and don’t stop with the homework until they go to bed (they go to a bi-curricular school, so it’s academically very rigorous).

But your approach really helped me approach the teacher in a neutral way, which is exactly what I needed!

Why I Love the “New” Math

The week before school starts, our local elementary school has a wonderful practice of classroom teachers stopping by the homes of each student for a quick sidewalk chat during a designated time (parents can opt out of the home visit). When my youngest child’s third grade teacher came by with one of the math resource teachers, the subject of math came up because in Virginia, third grade means learning the multiplication tables—a milestone in any child’s life.

I offhandedly mentioned how happy I was about the so-called “new math” being taught in schools these days, adding that my own relationship with mathematics probably would have gone a bit better if I had been taught, ahem, multiple ways to do multiplication, for example. You would have thought I had given them the highest compliment, the way their eyes lit up. The third grade teacher told me she was glad that at least one parent “got it,” when it came to the new math methods.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With so much controversy about the new math, let me share why I think it’s a marvelous thing for our children—and why you should too.

We learn differently. Not every child figures things out in the same way. That might not seem revelatory, but think about how that translates into math. If not every student learns something in the same way, does it help to only teach something as vital and such a core subject as math in only one way? One of my kids likes to multiple things the old-fashioned way, while another prefers one of the newer methods.

It gives options. For me, when a math problem didn’t make sense when I tried the only way presented to me by the teacher, it was so frustrating. New math gives kids options to try different methods to approach the same problem when stuck.

It offers a more visual approach. I often think that if I had been taught to multiply with hundreds written out like one new math method, I would have understood numbers much better. Some of the new math speaks to visual learners in a way that traditional methods never did.

It avoids one size fits all. While the answers are still the same, new math allows students to customize their personality to how they tackle mathematical problems. To me, this is perfect for our increasingly customizable world, and provides another connection with this generation of pupils.

In short, new math provides our children with plenty of opportunities to excel in math—that’s something we all should applaud.