News from the school psychologist

How to help your child make (and keep) friends

Learn what to it takes for kids to be socially successful.

By Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D.

Human beings are innately social, from the first smile in infancy to the later joy of reunions with lifelong friends. But at no life stage is belonging and befriending more vital than in middle childhood. As a baby and preschooler, your child makes her primary emotional connections with family and caregivers, even though she probably spends more time with peers than you did at that age. But the preschooler's all-consuming question — "How do I fit into this family?" — evolves in elementary school to become "How can I be an insider?" along with its corollary, "Who will be my best friend?"

Pass by an elementary or middle school at dismissal time and watch the flow of children trudging home or boarding buses. Remarkably, they look almost identical, wearing the same styles of jackets, carrying the same backpacks in the same colors slung over their shoulders in a manner identical to their same-gender peers. Girls, in particular, are cautious about not dressing differently from other girls their age. Boys have similar standards, but they are more likely to rank one another on athletic prowess and physical power. Boys who seem overly aggressive to adults are often the most admired by their peers. Girls, on the other hand, measure one another on attractiveness and readiness to be helpful and kind, rather than overt aggression.

Most parents of children this age have had to console youngsters who complain, "Nobody likes me," after being left off a guest list for a party or not chosen for a team. Every child has at least some worry about the possibility — if not the experience — of being left out by the group or rejected by a former best friend. In early elementary school, leaders may be secure for a week or a month or two, and then that too changes. Often, to avoid being rejected themselves, kids can be disloyal and mean in public to a supposedly good friend. No child is guaranteed continuing social success.

When and how to respond

Some adults view childhood as a carefree time, having forgotten their own early uncertainty about being socially accepted and having loyal friends. In fact, indifference to social matters at this age is worrisome. The elementary- or middle-school-age child who is a willing loner is out of synch with expected behavior. The more typical child, rather than being carefree, is painfully aware of the importance of social acceptance, popularity and having and keeping friends.

We have learned from research studies of children that being accepted though largely ignored is not as painful as being openly disliked. Early social outcasts probably face more problems down the road; children who are consistently rejected by their peers at this age are most likely to drop out of school in adolescence. And being truly friendless is at least as much cause for concern as persistent academic or learning problems.

But avoid worrying about your children's social success or failure on any given day or week. Unless social isolation is long-standing and persistent, it doesn't warrant great concern. Children this age will have their "in" days and "out" days, disputes with good friends and temporary partings. They also may forget yesterday's social successes when one thing goes wrong today.

You can help by:

  • Providing consistently loving support
  • Appreciating the pain caused by even a temporary social failure
  • Befriending the teacher and planning together how to help the child who feels left out
  • Patching up an imperiled friendship by talking calmly and warmly to both children

The teacher can tell you which kids seem to work and play well with your child, so that you can arrange playdates after school. Teachers can also guide you toward after-school activities that encourage friendships, both new and old. Parents and teachers can share observations about children's social strengths and weaknesses.

Some schools offer training in social skills. We know that socially successful kids are sensitive to other people's feelings and needs and often have good ideas for joint activities and a good sense of humor (though not at anyone's expense). A child struggling for acceptance may lack these important qualities, and training can help her improve in at least some areas. When a friendless child begins to see positive results from changes in her own behavior, she is on the way to more and more social success. But remember that behavioral changes are likely to be slow even with the most supportive coaching.

If, after all these efforts, your child remains consistently isolated and friendless, it is time to consult an outside expert — a board-certified child psychiatrist or a comparably qualified child psychologist who can guide your child toward increasing social success.

Posted by J. Davis on Wednesday March 19, 2014 at 09:20AM
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Talking with Your Elementary School Child about Learning Difficulties

Though it isn't always easy, it's essential that you have frank conversations with your child about his learning challenges.

By Brian Inglesby, M.A., L.E.P.

Talking with your child about a sensitive topic like a learning disability (LD) is not easy. But it may be one of the most important things you can do to foster his learning and emotional development. When kids experience learning problems without understanding what's wrong, they're apt to imagine the worst.

Listen for Early Signs of Problems

If you notice a change in attitude when your child talks about school, don't ignore the signs. Since you know him better than anyone else, be sensitive to the clues he's giving you. Frustration may sound like, "I hate school"..."Nobody likes me"..."I can't draw"..."Other kids make fun of how I talk." An older child might say, "School is so stupid; why do we even have to go?" or "See, Mom, I'm retarded...the teacher moved me to the dummy group in math."

"Some children, especially those with receptive and expressive language problems, may not understand the nature of their problems or don't know how to ask questions or engage in a dialogue." - Dr. Bob Brooks

Many kids aren't able to express their feelings with words, but they let you know that things aren't going well in other ways. They tear up their schoolwork, refuse to talk about their day, or overreact with outbursts of temper. They tell you that they don't have any homework or forget to turn it in the next day. They don't want to go to school and complain of illness so that they can stay home. They say that they have no friends.

How should you respond to such behaviors? Ask yourself if your child has been acting this way for several weeks. Is there another explanation, such as a new baby in the house, an illness in the family, a change to a new school? What does his teacher say about his behavior or performance in school?

Gather Some Facts

Getting a clear and complete understanding of the nature of your child's learning struggles is a first step. Talk with his teachers to find out the ways that his learning problems affect his educational progress in reading, writing, and math. You may also want to ask the teacher about his social and emotional development, since learning struggles often have an impact beyond academics.

Sort through Your Feelings

When your child struggles at school, it's completely normal to feel worried, frustrated, and even disappointed. However, kids quickly pick up on a parent's negative feelings about their school performance. So it's important to find an appropriate outlet for your feelings- with sympathetic family members, friends, or a professional therapist - to help you move toward acceptance of your child' s learning problems. It might also be helpful to join a support group of parents of children with LD, either in your community or online. With adult support, your interactions with your child are likely to be more positive and optimistic.

Choose Your Words

Figuring out what terms to use when you describe your child's learning problems to him can be tricky. General statements such as "your brain is unique and wired differently" may help your child understand that each human brain is unique. Choose the phrase carefully and decide which words are most comfortable for you. Encourage other adults in your child's life to use the same description you have chosen so there's consistency.

For some kids, it may be important to balance the "differences" statement with a more optimistic phrase like "differences in how your brain works may actually make you more skilled in certain areas than other kids." Tell him about family members, friends, or celebrities with learning disabilities who are successful and/or famous.

Educators, clinicians, and researchers each have their own vocabulary to describe learning problems. In the public school setting, for example, special education law requires that kids be identified with a particular label in order to qualify for special education services. The eligibility category of "specific learning disability" (SLD) is a broad label used to describe a group of disorders that may affect reading, writing, and/or math skills.

Use the Correct Terms

If your child receives academic support from a resource teacher or in a special education classroom, it's important to use the proper term to describe the type of class he attends. For many kids, the terms "special education" or "special ed" are negative and upsetting labels, so be prepared for some resistance when he hears this term. But use the correct term when you talk with him because he's going to hear it sooner or later from teachers or peers. It may help to take the stigma away from the term "special education" if you use it interchangeably with a term like "resource help" or "reading help."

Make the Problem Concrete

Simply telling your child that he has a learning disability in reading doesn't really help him understand the problem, nor offer any clues about how to manage it. On the other hand, if you tell your child that he has "trouble remembering the details of a story" or that he "needs to work on increasing reading speed," the problem is clear, specific, and suggests a goal for improvement. It also lets your child know that his learning struggles are limited to one aspect of reading, and that he can be successful in other areas of school which are less dependent on reading, such as science, math, art, or physical education. Show him examples of his work that illustrate both strengths and weaknesses. Ask him if he can think of ways to make specific, challenging subjects easier and to learn the skills that are hard for him.

Listen Carefully to Your Child's Response

"Other children may be embarrassed to discuss their problems, feeling that the spotlight is always cast on the things that are problematic for them." - Dr. Bob Brooks

Each child is unique; your child's reaction to a conversation about his learning problems may be unpredictable. Your child may be upset or angry about being "different." It's important to recognize his right to these feelings. When he seems able to listen, offer him reassurance that, through his own efforts and some adult help, he can learn. Back off a little if he's looking overwhelmed. He may need time to process the information about his learning issues and then return with some questions. Or, he may be inquisitive from the start and ask more questions than you can answer. Listen to his questions and give him honest answers. If you don't know the answer, assure him you will find out.

Follow Up Regularly

After you've had your first talk with your child about his learning struggles, you will likely want to have several follow-up conversations. It's good to begin these talks by asking your child to describe in his own words how he currently understands or experiences his learning difficulties — and his progress. You may need to repeat your explanation of his learning difficulties several times before he is really able to grasp what it means. Once he has internalized some of the language and ideas, he may feel more comfortable talking about these issues with peers. In so doing, he is laying the foundation for self-advocacy at school.

Take Age and Maturity into Account

Below is some general information about kids' needs for information about LD at various ages. You are the best judge of what your child is ready to hear, and his preferred ways of getting the information.

Grades K-3

Even young children worry about their performance in school. In the primary grades (K through 3), most kids begin to identify what they do well and what they have trouble with. Whether it's school work or athletic ability, kids begin the process of self-assessment and peer comparison. When you address your child's learning struggles, assure him that you and his teachers are working together to help him do well in school, that he doesn't have to do it all alone! If you feel it's appropriate, have him participate in informal meetings about learning challenges and goals with you and the teacher. If he's directly involved in the solution, it's more likely he'll be committed to improving.

Grades 4 and 5

By the upper elementary grades (4 and 5), kids should have a good sense of their academic strengths and weaknesses. If your child identifies himself as a "poor" or "slow" student, help him understand the difference between a specific learning difficulty and a general lack of intelligence or ability. By legal definition, kids with LD have average to above average intelligence, so they're smart enough to learn. Let him know that, for some academic subjects, he just needs some very specific strategies to help him learn. Be honest about his difficulties, but provide factual information about his intelligence and the things he does well. Help him understand that his learning problems are just one part of who he is. ("Yes, you have trouble reading; but you're an amazing soccer player, a really great older brother, and a champion at Pictionary®. Reading problems are just one part of you.") This will help him to stay motivated and develop resilience for the long haul.

Fourth- and fifth-graders are experts at the "yeah, but" statements that can undermine success: "Yeah, but I got an 'F' on this spelling test, so I'm never gonna go to fifth grade." If you hear something like that, refocus him on the smaller picture - "Seems like you had a really hard time with that spelling test. Let's see how we can make next week's test better." Talk about what he could do differently and identify ways you can help him. And remember, it's essential to follow through on any promises of assistance.

Keep Up the Good Work

When you can talk to your child about his specific learning difficulties in a knowledgeable and caring manner, there's a greater likelihood that he'll maintain his self-esteem, develop effective coping strategies, and learn to appreciate the diversity of his talents, both in and out of school. Ultimately, self-awareness, self-advocacy, self-respect, and hard work will be the keys to his success.

Posted by J. Davis on Monday March 10, 2014 at 01:19PM
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How Do I Help a Child Who Worries About Tests?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My daughter is smart, outgoing and funny, but can be a bit serious at times. Although she is doing well in school, above grade level in reading, language arts and math, she gets nervous and anxious at the mention of the word "test."

Even though she does well on her school work and homework, she panics on her tests and makes silly mistakes. She doesn't read the directions correctly, she rushes to finish the test so she is not the last one to finish, or she can't think straight because she's too nervous so she gets wrong answers to questions she already knows. Can you give us some ideas as to what we, as parents, and she can do to help with this situation?

Answer:

Children who become anxious at the thought of a test often feel convinced they are going to fail. Test anxiety occurs for many reasons, such as lack of preparation, fear of disappointing the teacher or parents, or low self-confidence. Fortunately, there are lots of things parents can do to help.

Enlist the help of your daughter's teacher. Ask about test-taking skills taught in the classroom. Once you know what she has been taught at school, you can review the same strategies with your daughter at home, reinforcing the learning.

Help your child feel prepared before tests. At least a week before a test, help your daughter study a little every day, using different methods. These can include making flash cards, writing and rewriting key words, making up a "mock" test, or even having her teach you the material. Teach her the following, calling it the A-B-C-D Rules for Test Taking:

  • Always read the directions twice.
  • Breathe in and out 5 times to relax.
  • Carefully read the questions and answer the easy ones first.
  • Don't hand in the test until you have double-checked your work.

On the day of the test, make sure she is well-rested and has eaten a healthy breakfast. Make sure she has sharpened pencils or other materials she will need.

After the test, praise your daughter for her hard work and help her celebrate with a special activity, such as taking a walk or playing a game together. Don't put too much emphasis on her grade and don't feed in to her anxiety if she gets upset. Instead, when the test comes home, approach it nonchalantly, reviewing errors and talking about ways to improve next time.

Posted by J. Davis on Thursday March 6, 2014 at 09:49AM
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Talking to your child about school

Help kids communicate about school with these simple tips.

By Emily Graham, PTO Today

Maybe your daughter says she hates social studies but won't tell you why. Or your son, when asked what he learned at school, just says, "Nothing." Talking about school with your children shows them that you value education and keeps you aware of what's going on in their lives, but what should you do when they don't want to talk?

Getting the conversation started

First, think about the time of day and the kind of questions you ask. Whether your child is a chatty first-grader or a tightlipped teenager, he may not want to talk about a tough math test as soon as he gets home from school. And questions like "How was school?" are bound to elicit uninformative answers like "Fine."

Experts recommend taking a few minutes to reconnect as a family after the busy day before addressing school and household issues. Let your kids know you're glad to see them and wait a while to ask about grades. Keep in mind that they may be tired or preoccupied when they first come home, or they may want some quiet time before launching into the evening's activities.

When you start a conversation about school, ask specific questions about parts of your child's day or the school environment, advises Laurence Steinberg, author of The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting and a psychology professor at Temple University.

"I think the biggest mistake parents make is to ask broad questions like 'How was your day today?' and their kids give a one- or two-word answer," Steinberg says. "The more specific you are in your questions, the more of an answer you're likely to get."

At the beginning of the school year, he suggests asking general questions to learn about a child's classroom, teacher, and classmates, such as:

  • What does your classroom look like?
  • Where is your desk?
  • Which of your friends are in your class?
  • Who else is in your class?
  • What did you like best at school today?
  • What did you have for lunch?

If your child is not talkative, you can still learn a lot about her school experience through other means. Read the school newsletter, email the teacher, and talk to other parents on the phone. As you become more familiar with your child's daily routine, you can ask more-specific questions to get her talking about a project or class pet.

Talking about problems

What should you do when your daughter announces that she hates school or when your son says he can't stand the kids in his class? Even for children prone to melodrama, these kinds of statements may signal that a child is having academic or social problems at school. It's important to get to the root of the problem, Steinberg says, and that will take patience and understanding.

When your daughter says, "I hate school," it could mean she is bored in class, doesn't understand new material, is being pushed too hard, or doesn't get along with a teacher. Your son's declaration that he doesn't like the other students may mean that he feels ignored or friendless or that he's being bullied or victimized.

Parents can help by talking with their kids about steps they can take to make the situation better. Younger children may need their parents' help to think about how to solve a problem, and older children need a chance to solve problems on their own, Steinberg says.

While most kids will be nervous about new experiences, that nervousness should fade over time, Steinberg says. Parents should be cheerful yet firm in dealing with their kids. "The most important thing for the child to have is support from you," he notes.

Communicating with kids: tips by age group

Playground disputes and disappointing grades — and learning to deal with them — are important parts of growing up. Before you intervene on your child's behalf, think about what response is appropriate for his maturity level and developmental stage.

Talking with young children: Younger children, especially those in kindergarten through third grade, will need help thinking about how to respond to problems at school. You can help your child learn problem-solving skills by talking about potential responses and what results they may bring. Help your child decide the best steps to take and encourage her to do what she can on her own.

Older children may be aware of potential solutions but still need encouragement to act. Children sometimes need coaching from their parents to take the first step, says Steinberg. If the problem persists, he recommends calling your child's teacher to see what insights he or she can bring.

Talking with adolescents: By fourth or fifth grade, children may become more resistant to parental involvement. Although it's a difficult balance, it's important to respect your adolescent's growing desire for autonomy while being available to help when needed. For example, if a seventh-grader is struggling in math class, talking with the child about the best way to ask the teacher for extra help is likely to be more effective than calling the teacher directly, Steinberg says.

As adolescents feel the need for more privacy, there will be times they simply don't want to talk. When that happens, Steinberg recommends the following approach: "If a 12- or 13-year-old looks upset, say, 'You look upset. Do you want to talk about what's bothering you?' If the child says no, say, 'That's OK, but if you do feel like talking, I'm here.' "

Posted by J. Davis on Monday February 24, 2014 at 09:03AM
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How Can I Stop My Fifth-Grader From Lying?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My fifth-grader has a tendency to lie for no apparent reason. He seems to do it almost automatically. What can we do?

Answer:

To some degree, lying is a developmental rite of passage for children. All children do it at some point. Very young children (ages 3-5) often tell tall tales because they enjoy having stories told to them as well as making up their own stories for fun. Also, preschoolers tend to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Once a child is school age, he is well aware that lying is wrong and will lead to punishment. Despite this, lying in this age group is still rather common, and can occur for a variety of reasons:

  • To avoid discipline. Often children lie simply to stay out of trouble. Making an adult angry or facing punishment can far outweigh the idea that lying is wrong. (e.g., telling a teacher, "The dog ate my homework!")
  • To impress others. In this case, children may tell tall tales to make themselves look good to friends (e.g., bragging to peers, "My parents let me watch PG-13 rated movies anytime I want!")
  • To get something they want. Children may lie to get something they want (e.g., telling Dad, "Mom said it was okay for me to have soda after dinner.")
  • To protect others. Children are very loyal to friends and family members. They may lie to protect someone else (e.g., a child with repeated bruises saying he ran into a door or fell off his bike versus admitting his friend punched him.)
  • Role modeling. Many children hear their parents and other important adults lying (e.g., lying about their plans in order to avoid something, calling in sick when not ill.)
  • Lying as a habit. Some children feel that lying is the easiest way to handle the demands of their parents, teachers, and peers. Their lies are not malicious, but the pattern becomes habitual.

Have a serious talk with your son about his lying. Give him specific examples of when you have caught him in a lie, and then discuss the importance of honesty, trust, and responsible behavior. Discuss consequences he can expect each time he lies, and then follow through. If the lying does not decrease, or if it becomes more serious and repetitive, then professional help should be considered. Evaluation by a child psychologist or psychiatrist would help both you and your son get to the bottom of his behavior.

Posted by J. Davis on Wednesday February 19, 2014 at 01:53PM
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Kids, divorce, and school success

By GreatSchools Staff

Going through a divorce can be a painful process for everyone involved. Children often feel caught in the middle, and the stress can affect their performance in school. But it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. Experts and parents who have been there say that with good communication, effective planning, heightened awareness of problems that might arise, and time to iron out the difficulties, families can emerge with positive, supportive relationships and kids can be successful in school, too.

Keep the focus on the child

Family counselors, authors, parents and even the kids who've been through it agree: The main thing is to focus on what's best for the child. They provide us with a wealth of tips for helping divorced families cope and helping their kids achieve academic success.

"When there's a divorce, it can feel like your whole world is crashing in," says Mary Lynn Crow, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington. She sees a tendency for divorced parents to focus on survival first because of the intense turmoil and fears that a divorce can cause. "But maintaining support for the child," she adds, "gives parents something positive to focus on. Sometimes that can help to ease the strain of divorce as well as benefit the child."

"Just as there are good and bad marriages, so there are good and bad divorces," says Marian Wilde, a senior editor at GreatSchools and a divorced parent. "In a good divorce, parents can continue to co-parent and communicate with each other. Much of what divorced parents need to communicate about is logistical: Who has homework? When is it due? Who needs a permission slip signed? It can be tough the first year of divorce when parents are focused on creating arrangements and dealing with lawyers. But it's important to be aware of what's happening with your child." She adds that with good communication, family relations do get better over time. "Things tend to mellow out," she says.

Make a plan — for homework, after-school activities, and college costs

Effective planning is key to lessening conflict, making sure everyone is in agreement about expectations and helping your child focus on school. The more that can be clearly laid out the better — that includes communication with teachers, household policies on homework and TV, who will attend school functions, and even what kids should wear to school.

"For younger kids, they should agree on the same homework procedures down to the details. For example, when the child gets home from school, will she have snack, then playtime and then do homework or will she do her homework first? It's better if both parents can agree on the same routine," says Crow. She suggests parents come to an agreement about after-school activities, too — how many activities the kids will do, who will pay for what and how school performance and concerns will affect after-school activities. She adds, "It's key that parents sit down together, if they can, and draw up these procedures. If necessary, they should hire a mediator to help devise a plan they can agree on."

Risa Garon, author of Stop! In the Name of Love for Your Children: A Guide to Healthy Divorce and executive director of the National Family Resiliency Center in Rockville, Maryland, advises parents to agree on academic concerns for older kids, too, and plan accordingly. Do both parents agree that the child should go to college? Can they agree on a range of costs and what each parent is willing to pay for tuition? They should agree on what courses the child should take in high school to prepare for college. They should agree on what types of colleges the child will consider and who will take the child to visit colleges, and whoever accompanies the child should agree to report back to the other parent.

Have consistent rules and provide support

"It's important to have consistent rules, have expectations and provide support," says Crow. "There can be a tendency for divorced parents to be permissive, to think, 'Well, he's had so much stress, I'll just do his homework for him or I won't check to see if he is getting and doing his homework.' That is a mistake," says Crow. Garon adds that it's important for kids going through a divorce to have discipline. "Consistency in parental expectations and discipline provides security and structure," she says.

Think of the other parent as your business partner

"Parents need to communicate as co-parents. Think of being a co-parent like being a business partner. This will take emotion out of the equation," says Garon. She suggests that parents agree to communicate once a week and always away from the child. They should agree ahead of time about the topics of the conversation and keep their focus on what is going to help their child be successful in school. Keep the conversation short, respectful, and keep blaming and judging out of the dialogue.

"Most parenting agreements are about how much time the child will have with each parent, and where the child will be for holidays," she notes. "But it is more important to focus on what the needs of the child are, rather than time spent with each parent. Focusing in this way can help to take away anger as part of the conversation." For example, if a child has a science project due, discuss the logistics of how it is going to get done. If the child will be with one parent for three days, then that parent should inform the other parent where the child is on the project and make sure the child has everything he needs to complete his assignment when he is with the other parent.

"When you have a conversation about your child and school, it should be as two parents talking about their child rather than as two ex-spouses talking to one another," says one child, now in his 20s, about his parents' divorce. "And the focus should be proactive rather than reactive."

"Parents should act like adults in front of their children," says a young woman, now in college, about her parents' divorce. "I remember having hurt feelings when I would hear my parents fighting on the telephone. I would feel especially bad for my dad, and it would turn me against my mom and make me feel bitter."

Figure out how your child's time will be divided

Unless there is a family history of violence or abuse, says Crow, children need to spend time with both of their parents. In joint custody arrangements, the key is coming up with a schedule that allows kids to spend significant time with each parent without creating too many unnecessary transitions for the child. Jennifer Lewis and William Sammons, authors of Don't Divorce Your Children, advise having blocks of time with the child. They advise consulting friends who have been through divorce to find out what works and keeping the plan flexible or agreeing to an initial trial schedule that can be reevaluated after six months or a year.

One creative solution that has worked for some parents is the "nesting" arrangement, where the children stay in the primary household, and the parents take turns going back and forth to a separate residence.

"I don't think that there is any one solution that is best in all situations," says Wilde. "Some parents believe that the kids should have one primary residence and see their other parent for dinner once or twice during the week and then have sleepovers once a week, usually on the weekend. This works well if the parents live close enough. What you gain in cutting back on transitions, you lose in the child feeling that there's no primary residence. It all depends on what the kids want, too. If they're too young to know, then the parents should think about what is best for the kids."

It's a good idea to make sure the child has an organized way for transporting things from one house to the other, including important schoolwork, homework assignments, materials needed to complete assignments. Both parents should be aware of student schedules including when assignments are due, extracurricular activities, emergency procedures, so that there will be no surprises and stress will be greatly reduced. Agree ahead of time on parental responsibilities around assignments. Avoid putting your child in the middle by saying things like, "Get your father to help you with that."

The schedule should have clear expectations but in the best situation, allow for flexibility. One child of divorce suggests that schedules can be kept flexible and problems avoided, if parents communicate via email and keep a central calendar, for example, on Google Calendar on the Internet. This young man suggests that both parents can mark important school dates and other events. Parents should plan to have a conversation once a month, he says, to discuss their child and answer the question, "How is he doing in school?" They shouldn't wait for report cards to come out to discuss his progress.

Wilde suggests that if a child has a computer at both homes, she should email drafts of a paper or project to her own email address. That way, she can always access her work at either home and avoid the frustration of not having the latest version with her.

Rethink the schedule as your child grows

As kids grow and activities change, parents should take another look at the schedule and decide what is best for the child. "Even a satisfactory schedule requires some flexibility to respond to immediate crises or the acute needs of an individual child, " authors Lewis and Sammons write in Don't Divorce Your Children. "We would advise that every separation or divorce agreement should provide a simple mechanism for changing the schedule, or else, as happens in too many families, the schedule becomes a straightjacket resented by the children and one or both parents."

Lexine Alpert, a San Francisco Bay Area divorced mom, advises that as the child gets older, he should be allowed to weigh in on the schedule, too. It should take into account his activities and his need to be in the home where he can see his peers, practice the piano or work on a paper on the computer.

Get both parents in the communication loop

Unless there is a legal reason not to, most experts agree that both parents should be listed as emergency contacts on school forms. When possible, both parents should receive communication from the school, including report cards and notices of important events. Parents should take responsibility to stay informed, and both parents should also be sure the other parent is in the communication loop.

"Parents may need to take an active role to work with the school to become an accepting place for all kinds of families," says Wilde. "Teachers need to be brought along. They shouldn't just talk about one type of family as the norm. It's better if they can say, 'Look at the wide variety of families we have and that's OK.'" Garon advises school personnel to avoid terms like "broken homes" and focus instead on family strengths.

Jerry Hill, a California divorced dad, county supervisor and founder of the Fatherhood Collaborative of San Mateo County, offers this advice specifically to divorced dads: "It's important to go to school on the first day. Talk with the teacher and let her know your goal is to be an equal parent, that you want to be included in all discussions and problems that may arise. Volunteer at school. It's OK for a dad to be a room mom. It's a good experience."

"Parents need to understand a school's communication cycle, how the teacher communicates and plug into it," says Debra Collins, a San Francisco-based licensed marriage and family therapist. "The teacher is more likely to contact both parents if they know both parents. Teachers tend to favor moms so be aware of that. Dads need to raise the flag and say, 'I am here, too. How do I stay involved?'"

"I think it's better if both parents are equally involved at school," said one young woman, now 18 years old and a college student. In her family, only her mother was involved at school, and she spent one or two days a week with her dad.

Erratic behavior from a parent — whether divorced or not — can be confusing for the child. One divorced mom, who asked that her name not be used, said that her ex-husband showed up unannounced at a parent-teacher conference. "When my ex did that, my son's reaction was, 'What is he doing here?' It made him feel more uncomfortable than having him not be involved at all."

Watch your child for warning signs

Parents should be on the alert for changes in their child's behavior. These can be signs that the stress of divorce is taking a toll. Collins advises parents to be proactive and expect that there will be difficulties along the way. "Don't wait until your child shows symptoms. Be proactive," she says.

"Look for warning signs that stress levels may be affecting performance — changes in temper, sleeping or eating," says Crow. "Does your child lock himself in his room? Is he spending too much time on the computer? Are his grades changing? It's a sign other behaviors are changing, too." She advises talking to the child, reading books about divorce written for kids and getting help from a counselor or support group if necessary.

Doing exceedingly well in school can be a sign of problems too. Garon adds, "Be aware of a child who is getting all A's but isn't doing anything else." This can be an indication that the child is burying himself in his schoolwork to the exclusion of everything else, and that's not necessarily healthy either. "Often parents are not sure when it comes to behavior what is divorce-related and what is not," she notes. "When in doubt, parents should not hesitate to reach out for help and get their child assessed by a child psychologist or counselor. It's a sign of health and strength to reach for support when it's needed."

Alpert advises parents to work closely with their child's teachers and to trust their advice. It's difficult if teachers suggest tutoring or extra help and one parent disagrees. "You have to move away from your ideas and opinions and defer to them," she notes.

Think about how to handle parent-teacher conferences

Whenever possible, it's best if both parents who take an active role in their child's education attend the parent-teacher conference together. That way what one parent hears, the other parent hears, too, and at the same time. If the relationship is too contentious or logistics make it impossible, then separate conferences at the very least keep both parents involved.

Stay in touch even when a parent lives far away

Regardless of distance, it's important to communicate regularly about the child's progress in school. With email, a parent far away can communicate with the school and the teacher to stay informed. A parent far away can request to have school information sent separately. When there's regular communication, there will be fewer surprises and less to argue about as issues arise. "It's very tough to be a parent from a distance," says Crow. "The custodial parent should take it as her responsibility to see that the noncustodial parent is informed about what is happening in school. Have a telephone conference with both parents and teacher if necessary."

"Just because there is distance doesn't mean one parent doesn't need to be involved," notes Garon. "The parent who is far away should try to have consistent communication with the school and the teachers, and should take responsibility for making an effort to show up when there is a significant event at the school. Kids create mental pictures and remember when parents make an effort, put their differences aside and come together for their sake."

Posted by J. Davis on Wednesday February 12, 2014 at 11:39AM
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My Son Has Poor Sportsmanship

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My son is extremely competitive. He wants to win at everything and gets very upset when he loses. What can I do to help him understand that he doesn't always have to win?

Answer:

By middle childhood, children have a strong sense of industry as they attempt to master various skills and develop proficiency in many areas. Competition can be a natural byproduct as children, along with their peers, try new things and push themselves to new heights. Some children seem to thrive in competitive situations, while others simply don't. Adults can help their children learn to compete appropriately by providing ample opportunities for cooperative group play. In these situations, learning to participate along with others will build tolerance, setting the stage for later competitive situations.

Competition can be both good and bad, and a certain amount of maturity is required to handle it. On the one hand, competition can add to the fun of a game; it involves striving to meet goals, working hard and building character as we are motivated to do our best. On the other hand, competition can go too far. When a child's self-esteem suffers or he feels humiliated by a loss, or he becomes hostile and hurtful towards his opponents, then it may be time for adults to step in. Children who are immature or insecure may not be developmentally ready to handle competitive situations.

As you try to figure out what is motivating your son to be so competitive, take a close look at how the adults in his life respond to competitive situations. Our society is extremely achievement focused, and many parents pressure their children at early ages to win and to be the best at all costs. It is not uncommon at school sports events to find coaches and parents berating children, pushing them to extreme levels of competition.

If adults in your son's life are doing this, they may need to back off a little. Your son should try hard so he can feel proud of himself; but if he doesn't win, he needs to accept the loss, learn from his mistakes and have a good attitude about trying again.

Help him learn to balance the satisfaction of playing a game with the aspiration of winning. It may take several conversations, with you pointing out examples when others are too competitive or are out of line. As his parent, it is your responsibility to communicate what is and is not an acceptable response. Use your common sense to decide whether his behavior is extreme.

Posted by J. Davis on Friday February 7, 2014 at 08:41AM
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Partnering with your elementary school teacher

How (and why) you should play a key role in your child's school success.

By GreatSchools Staff

If teaching was show business, then your child’s teacher would get star billing. But don’t forget about the other major player whose role in your child’s education can help make it a smash success: Yes, you, the parent.

When parents and educators co-star in a child’s big show – a.k.a. school – everybody benefits: The teachers who can count on the support of active and involved parents, the parents who stays connected to their child and school, and, most important, the child whose parents and teachers are working in tandem.

Educational research bears out the fact that academic achievement, attitude, and attendance improve measurably when parents are involved in their children’s schooling. The later elementary years are the ideal time to work at home with your child to reinforce reading and math. This is also a time when social skills play a bigger role in your child’s school life. With adolescence looming, it’s important to stay connected to school and teachers to make sure your child is staying on track.

Meet and greet

There’s some advantage to meeting the teacher before the mid-autumn parent-teacher conference. Before the school year really gets rolling, you can help your child’s teacher get to know your child in advance. (If you don't know how to get in touch with the teacher, check in with the school's office for an email address or phone number.) Share with the teacher your child’s passions (“She loves animals.”), problems (“He like puzzles, but freaks out if he can’t finish one.”), and any other issues that may prove challenging at school (“He is shy about asking to use the bathroom.”).

If you can wait for October or November, when most first semester conferences take place, before your meeting, check the work your child is bringing home from school and talk with your child to see if she has any issues to address with the teacher. To learn about your child’s school day, ask her about her friends, her favorite subjects, what she finds interesting and what bores her. The more information you come to the meeting with, the more fruitful your teacher meeting will be. (Click here and here for more tips on preparing for a parent-teacher conference.)

Make the open house

Most schools host an open house in the early fall. Even if your child as been at the school for a couple of years, take advantage of this orientation to get a sense of what is in store for your child the school year. The open house is an ideal opportunity to meet the teacher, see the classroom, and find out what your child is working on. Keep in mind: Open houses are not the time to talk in-depth about your child – save those questions for a parent-teacher conference.

Lend a hand

Many teachers welcome and need extra hands in the classsroom. Plus, even a few visits a year will give you a better sense of the teacher, the work the kids are doing, and how your child fits in with the class. Even if you can’t help in class, make it a point to attend special events like the science fair, school concert, or school picture days. Your presence sends a message to your child that school is important.

You can also offer your support by asking the teacher if there are any tasks that you can do from home such as typing the newsletter or calling classroom parents to remind them of an upcoming event. If you have a special skill – you’re a computer whiz who can set up the students new laptops or an artist who can help with a holiday project– offer to come in and share your expertise with the class. (Click here for more ideas on volunteering in the classroom.)

Stay in touch

To keep communication between you and the teacher open, keep in touch with the teacher throughout the year. Remember: to better help your child, most teachers want parental input. If you’re not able to get into the classroom, set up a regular schedule to check in with the teacher. Also, find out if the teacher posts homework or other assignments on the web. If she does, check often to make sure your child is on track.

Finally, most schools have email lists for parents. Call the office to see if your school has one and how to join. Parent email lists are a valuable way for parents to learn about school events, workshops, and other news. It is also a way to meet other parents and share resources.

Be part of the solution

If your child is having specific problems at school – from conflicts with other kids to homework struggles – don’t let the problem fester. Arrange a meeting with the teacher and offer ideas for solutions. If you’re unsure what to do, ask the teacher for ideas on how you can both resolve the situation. That approach helps the teacher feel less defensive and reinforces the idea that you are a team. Try to be as specific as possible in your concerns (“My child says the words out loud when reading.” “My daughter is flipping letters.”). Even if the teacher doesn’t have an answer right away, she can be on the look-out for problems and help work with you on a solution.

Get involved school wide

Parents who get involved in parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) become true collaborators with your child's teacher and school administration. Attend PTO meetings (most meet monthly, usually in the evenings) and participate as much as you’re able. PTOs do everything from raising funds for much-needed school equipment to helping create after-school enrichment programs.

To get involved at a different level, many schools have advisory groups that work with the principal to help establish school policies. By joining, you’ll get a much deeper understanding of how the school works and be a part of improving your child’s school and classroom.

Make home work

There may be no better way to partner with your child’s teacher than to maintain a supportive academic environment at home. Check in with the teacher a few times during the school year to ask what you can do at home to reinforce the work your child is doing in school. Working with your child at home helps him understand that home and school are connected. It will also give you an insight into how your child learns, which can help when you have parent-teacher conferences.

Ask the magic question

Finally, one single question can work magic to strengthen the parent-teacher bond. Asking your child's teacher, “How can I help?” opens the lines of communication between a parent and teacher and makes the teacher feel they have an ally working to help your child succeed. In response, the teacher may provide you with specific ways that you, as a parent, can do to support your child’s education at home and come to school ready to learn.

Posted by J. Davis on Monday January 27, 2014 at 01:20PM
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Teaching elementary schoolers persistence

How to help your children stick with it (no matter what).

By GreatSchools Staff

Banging the piano lid shut in a crescendo of rage 10 minutes after practicing new scales. Crumpling up the math worksheet into a small ball of frustration. These are the times that try parents' souls — those tearful and tempestuous moments when kids simply give up.

If these episodes are hard for parents to witness, consider how our children feel. They are trying something new and difficult and — in their minds — failing. In truth, this is an ideal teachable moment, when we can help our children understand that, no matter how new or difficult, challenges are achieved through patience, practice, and effort.

“Perseverance, or work ethic, is one of the most highly correlated traits of success,” says child educational consultant Michele Borba, the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Persistence is something children need to succeed in school and life. A 2007 paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found the ability to persevere may be as essential as talent or IQ to succeed. The good news? Persistence is a trait that can be taught and learned. It’s just a matter of knowing how to help your children — and not giving up on them when they give up on themselves.

Talk about it

Elementary school-age kids benefit from regularly hearing about persistence. So teach them different ways to talk about problem-solving: “I won’t quit,” “I can do it,” and “It’s always hardest the first time, but it will get easier.” Borba also suggests coming up with a household “stick with it” mantra, explaining that families that maintain an overall attitude of “We can do it” tend to face obstacles and mistakes with grace and ingenuity. Some favorites: “Mistakes don’t get us down” and “The family that doesn’t quit!” Finally, tell stories either from your own life or ask your school librarian to recommend books about characters who manage to succeed despite the obstacles. Classics for this age include William Steig’s Abel’s Island and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Resist rescuing

When we see our kids having a hard time because they aren’t succeeding, it’s tempting to jump in to make it all better. But remember: We learn by trial and error. By giving kids a chance to fail, we also give them the pleasure of succeeding on their own. The next time your children have a problem and ask you to solve it, don’t. Instead, sit down and ask them to think of a solution. This gives your kids time to cool down and teaches valuable problem-solving skills. And while it’s tempting, when playing games — be it Monopoly Jr. or old maid — refrain from letting children win just because they’ll be unhappy if they don’t. Playing fair and square teaches the important life lesson that, in games as in life, sometimes you’re going to fail before you win.

Nurture a hobby

Children who have a passion learn the pleasure of practicing and improving at something they love, says Borba. Support your children’s interests. Help them check out books at the library on subjects they love. Not only are they learning firsthand the value of mastering something through effort, they may also be preparing for their adult vocation.

Watch out for the “I can’t do it” triggers

Do your kids seem to blow up at a certain time of day? Often, says Borba, kids get frustrated and give up at a task simply because they are tired, hungry, or just need some time to unwind. So make sure your children are well fed, get enough sleep, and have a chance to play before settling down to a chore or homework. By explaining that they’re strengthening their minds and bodies to be ready for the task at hand, young kids will learn to fortify themselves before turning to a challenge.

Remember: Young kids often blow up when they can’t get something right. Avoid recrimination (“I told you this would be hard”) or reacting with your own, sometimes justifiable, anger (“Don’t yell at me just because you are having trouble with your time tables!”). If you lose your cool, walk away for a moment. Also, suggest your children take a break, then return after calming down

Push them ... just a little

This is one of the trickiest but most essential ways to work out children’s persistence muscles. It’s tempting for older kids who do something well to stay in their comfort zone and never venture beyond that point. Push them to try just a little bit harder next time. For this purpose, kitchen timers are a parent’s best friend. So if your kids practiced their music for 10 minutes this week, set the timer for 15 minutes the following week. Don’t forget to offer words of encouragement: “You did great practicing 10 minutes. Let’s see if we can make this a little more challenging for you.”

But don’t make the expectations too great

While you do want to encourage kids to try harder, don’t make your expectations exceed their ability to succeed. If you see your children failing more often than not and feeling the sting of disappointment every time, ask yourself if you are setting the bar too high. Is the soccer team too advanced for your kids? Are you so much better at Scrabble Jr. that your children can never win? If the answer is yes, it’s time to lower the bar so your children experience just the right challenge.

Remind them of their successes

“I’ll never be able to do it!” Chances are you’ve heard your children utter this mournful cry of defeat. At times like these, make kids the hero of a story. Remind them of the triumphal times they had trouble doing well at something but kept their eyes on the goal and succeeded. “Remember when you were terrified of starting third grade but ended up loving it and making good friends?” This kind of pep talk is often just what kids need to try, try again. And when your children hang in there, point it out. “You stuck with your homework even though it was hard. You should be really proud.” 

Posted by J. Davis on Thursday January 23, 2014 at 02:46PM
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Teaching elementary schoolers self-control

How to help your children think before acting (and resist those marshmallows!).

By GreatSchools Staff

Want to learn more about your children? Then get out the marshmallows.

Here’s how it works: Tell them they can have one marshmallow now — or wait and have two in 15 minutes. According to the famous study first done by psychology professor Walter Mischel 40 years ago (click here for a recreation), children’s ability to wait (or not) says a lot about how well they’ll do in school, with friends, and with family. And, incredibly, waiting for that extra marshmallow can even predict their success as adults — in work and relationships.

If your kids are the “I want the marshmallow now!” type, don’t worry. The news is still good: Learning to control emotions and behavior is a skill that can be taught. In fact, a recent study published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that teaching self-control techniques to elementary school-age children who had difficulty reining in their emotions and behavior significantly reduced suspensions and other disciplinary problems.

That said, knowing how to think before acting can be especially difficult for very young children. But by helping them practice over and over (and over), parents are providing one of life’s most valuable skills.

Lay out expectations

Some kids react badly because they don’t know what to expect in some situations or what will be expected of them. So fill them in ahead of time if they need to wait for something or be asked to do a difficult task: “We’re going to visit Grandma, and she and I will be talking for a while. Let’s put together some books and games so you won’t be bored.” “My friend and her children are coming to visit. You might need to share some toys, so let’s put away the ones that are really special to you.”

Give them the words

Help children learn to recognize the troubling emotions they’re feeling before having an outburst or tantrum: “Boy, you were really mad when I said you couldn’t have a quarter for the gumball machine.” “You seemed sad when your sister said you’re too little to play with her and her friends.” Also, encourage children to give voice to what they are feeling: “I feel sad when ...” or “I feel frustrated when ... ” You can also help them learn to use self-control phrases (which, in turn, can help them refrain from impulsive, thoughtless behavior) like “May I borrow that?” “It’s OK, I can share with you,” “I’ll wait my turn,” and “I would like it now, but I’ll wait until later.”

Take a break

Create a quiet place at home where an out-of-control child can calm down. It can be a pillow-filled corner in the living room or a cozy spot in a child’s bedroom. By providing an at-home refuge, parents can teach kids that there’s a way, and a place, to collect themselves when things get out of hand.

Provide a reward

Kids often do better at a task if they get a reward at the end. It doesn’t have to be a material reward (offering toys and treats can set a bad precedent), but a natural consequence for showing self-discipline. The reward might be picking out favorite stories after getting ready for bed when you ask, or getting to pick out dessert after helping to set the kitchen table.

Praise your child

When you see kids practicing self-control, let them know. This kind of positive reinforcement will help them think of themselves as people who can successfully control their behavior: “I love how you waited patiently for your turn.” “This is the third time this week you didn’t interrupt me when I was on the phone. I really appreciate that you waited to talk with me.”

Play at self-control

For elementary school-age children, the best way to learn something is through play. So on the way to the bath, in the supermarket, or on the drive to school, have your children stop and start different actions, like freezing when you say “Potato!” In the car, every time there’s, say, a yellow sign, have your kids clap and say, “Yellow sign!” These types of games teach kids to stop and think before acting, a self-control essential.

 

Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday January 14, 2014 at 02:22PM
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