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Can my child fail her kindergarten screening?

Schools have a variety of different practices for kindergarten screening. Some have kids come in during the spring for a tour, screening, or orientation. Other schools do it right before school starts at the end of the summer, or even on the first few days of school. If you are wondering about your child’s kindergarten screening, the best source of information is the school itself. The second best source is any group of local parents, in person or on social media.

No matter when they schedule it, your child’s new school will probably have one or more events before kindergarten starts, so kids can get used to the new school building and teachers and other staff have the chance to meet the students. This often includes a brief screening assessment. A kindergarten screening is a great opportunity for teachers to get to know students and for kids to meet some new adults and show off what they know by playing some short learning games.

Even though kindergarten screening can be a very positive experience, I have rarely seen a parent look as anxious as parents do as they watch their freshly scrubbed and combed little boy or girl walk away with a teacher for their screening. It’s totally understandable. I mean, before your children turn 5, how many times do you really just have them walk away from you with another adult for set for any reason? Maybe they’ve been with babysitters or daycare or preschool teachers but for the most part, you’ve been along to at least ease the transition.

I promise you, kindergarten screenings are nothing for either you or your child to be nervous about. Hopefully, reading this post will take some of the mystery out of the process and help you and your child enjoy their introduction to their new school!

Why do kindergartens do screenings?

Take a moment to see the world through kindergarten teacher’s eyes. All of a sudden, on the first day of school, about 20 little people enter your classroom. They’re excited, they’re curious, they’re shy, they’re crying, and they’re wondering when it’s time for snack. The teacher has to keep the class moving through the day and engaged to give them a great first day of school, so she doesn’t have a lot of chances to sit and chat with individual kids that first day. Kindergarten screening is where children have the opportunity to interact one-on-one with one of the professionals that work within the school and they are incredibly valuable for teachers. It can speed up the process of the teachers at school getting to know your child’s strengths and their needs.

What will they ask my child to do at kindergarten screening?

Schools use many different tools for the kindergarten screening process. Regardless of whether they have published assessment tool that they use or whether they have put together their own set of activities, they are often looking for some of these skills:

  • Communicating verbally – this can include chatting with the adults in the room, giving information like their full name, naming pictures and saying what words mean
  • Following directions to do physical and tabletop tasks, like hopping on one foot and pointing to your nose and making a pattern like my pattern with your blocks.
  • Motor skills including ability to use a pencil and scissors
  • Knowledge of common preschool material like letters, numbers, and colors.
  • Behavioral observations like whether the child separates easily from a parent, is friendly or shy, or is impulsive about touching the assessment materials

What happens if my kid isn’t good at that stuff?

As long as your child meet the age requirements for kindergarten and is in the right neighborhood for the school they’re attending, the school cannot turn them away. There’s no such thing as failing a kindergarten screening.

Teachers use the information they gain from kindergarten screenings to plan strategic groups for different skills. For example, a teacher might have a whole group of entering kindergartners who don’t know all their letter sounds and she might plan to work with those students more frequently until they master the skill. Sometimes other experts come in to work with groups in the classroom, like occupational therapists or speech therapists, and they may pay special attention to a group who’s having trouble with a particular skill, like making a certain speech sound or using scissors.

In some cases, teachers might note significant concerns about a child’s development. Often, these are children who we already know needed extra help with speech and language or motor skills as young children. They might have had early intervention services or they might have been seeing a therapist privately before starting school. It’s still helpful for teachers to see these kids in action in the screening environment and get a perspective on what they might need when school starts. In other cases, teachers may have concerns about a student who has not been identified previously. Teachers use information they get from the kindergarten screening to make a note of who to keep a closer eye on as school begins so that they can provide extra support, gather more information, and communicate with the parents as soon as possible about any concerns they have.

Will I find out how my child did at kindergarten screening?

This depends on the school. In some schools, parents get a written report that gives them scores for the kindergarten screening tool that the school uses. In other places, parents might get a more generic letter that states that their child participated and no concerns were noted. You may also get follow-up communication that your child has been selected for short-term extra help with a professional in the school, or that the school would like to talk about some things they noticed or recommend further testing. If you have questions about any of these communications, it is a great idea to get in touch with the person who sent you the letter or with the child’s teacher to find out more about what they are noticing with your child as he or she starts school.

While the process of sending children’s kindergarten screening can cause a lot of anxiety for parents, please remember that the purpose of the whole process is to get your child off to a good start in kindergarten and make sure they have the tools they need to succeed there. Everything that teachers ask or do during the screening process serves that purpose. Teachers want kids to have a good experience with the screening and we want them to enter kindergarten feeling confident and excited about all the things they will learn!

How to use Quizlet to study

What if I told you the best way to study material was to hand write your own flashcards?

Yeah, I’m not making flashcards for every term in every test either so I know you’re probably thinking, “OK, if that’s the best way to study, is there a second best way I can try?”

Maybe! Although there are benefits to hand writing your own notes and flashcards for studying, because it helps you process and learn information both when you write them and when you read and study them, creating your own flashcards can be a daunting process. When you have a lot of material to learn, you might avoid preparing for a test because it is too overwhelming.

That’s where I think Quizlet can be a great resource. First, you need to find the study material that fits your exam on Quizlet. Luckily, thousands of students and teachers have come before you and have created study sets for almost any academic knowledge topic I have searched for. Even better, often kids from your own school or your own teacher will have created study sets for you and your classmates. This is best because it will follow closely the way your teacher teaches.

Once you find a set of cards that matches what you need to learn, you can copy them to your own new list. This is a good option because then you can add cards or add more information to cards in a way that helps you study, based on the study guide or other information you’ve been given.

Click the copy button to make your own copy of a pre-made set of cards so you can edit them

Often, students say they study by reading through the cards. This is a good start to studying, but it is not enough when learning new material. Flipping through flashcards is too passive and creates the false belief that you understand things that have passed in front of your reading eyes. While reading the flashcards maybe enough to make the material familiar to you, really mastering it requires a more active process.

Luckily, Quizlet has many features that help you interact with the cards in a more productive way.

Quizlet’s Learn feature

If you’re sitting down with a set of material for the first time, you might want to use Quizlet Learn feature. With the learn feature, you are looking at a small set of cards to begin with and choosing the correct answer in a multiple-choice format. You will get feedback about which ones you get right and which ones you get wrong and the system keeps track of how many terms you have got cracked. After you get the item correct in multiple choice format, the next time you see it will be in a fill in the blank format. This takes the demand on your memory from recognition to explicit expression of the answer. This explicit, or declarative, memory is harder to achieve than just the recognition memory. So you’ll have to go through the cards more than one time to get to that level.

Other ways to use Quizlet

For some sets of material, or some students, the learn feature might not be the way you like to study. Instead, click through the deck of cards, saying the answer to yourself before you flip over to see the material on the back, and star any cards that you do not get right.

On your next pass through the cards, you can study only the starred cards. using the stars, you can set up a variation of the spaced repetition system that is so helpful for studying and memorizing new material. Quizlet is not really designed to sort cards into categories based on how well you know the material, but you can use the Stars to roughly approximate this system.

Create your own

There are so many card sets available on Quizlet that you might not need to make your own cards. But maybe you should! One benefit of making flashcards is that you have to think about and organize the information in your brain before you can put them on cards. You can type the information into a document and then upload it to Quizlet or type it right into the card maker. Be sure not to cram too much information onto your cards and write them in a way that you can study either the front or the back and remember what is on the other side.

Print them out

I’m not a person who usually prefers paper. I tend to use digital forms for documents, notes, communication, and anything else that I can get in digital form. People will say do you want me to make a copy of that for you? And I’ll say oh no I’ll just lose it.

But sometimes, there’s no substitute for having a physical reminder in your hand to study from. I was studying for a big exam a couple years ago and a friend who was studying for the same exam printed out a set of cards from Quizlet and gave me a copy. I cut them apart and studied them and there was definitely something satisfying about seeing the pile of cards that I knew growing while the cards that I was still studying were part of a smaller and smaller pile.

Don’t let the idea of writing out flashcards for every fact you are studying stop you from using flashcards to study! Find the info you need on Quizlet or make your own. Study on your computer or put the app on your phone to study on the go! You’re going to nail this test!

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Making your own flashcards is best, but Quizlet is a great shortcut

Is the secret to teaching handwriting on your playground?

Maybe you’ve started wondering, “How do I get my child to write her name?” or “Why does my child hate writing?” Maybe your friend’s preschooler or your nephew or your babysitter’s kid was drawing people and trees by this age and your child couldn’t care less about coloring. First of all, your child may be at a totally normal spot, developmentally, for her age. This chart from Understood.org shows that it is normal for preschoolers to be scribbling, beginning to copy letters, and maybe learning their names during the preschool years. They say children don’t necessarily learn to hold a pencil correctly until they are school age, between 5 and 7.

This list from Zero to Three is another great resource for the stages of handwriting. Up until 2 1/2, random scribbles are the name of the game. My son was mostly still biting crayons at two. Between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, kids get more control of their scribbles and patterns – like zigzags and repeated lines – emerge. It’s normal for kids to start drawing recognizable objects and figures between the ages of 3 and 5. (That means some kids will start when they are five and that’s still fine!)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what can you do for your kids to help them get ready for writing, especially as you start to get ready for kindergarten? The answer may surprise you!

Think big

Before your kids can master the small muscle movements of writing, they need strength and coordination in their big muscles. This includes core strength and strong muscles in their shoulders and arms. So one of the best things you can do to help your kids learn to write the alphabet or learn to write their names is take them outside to run, jump, climb and swing!

This blog post from Miss Jaime, O.T., explains it nicely. Kids who have weak cores prop themselves up with an arm, lean on furniture, fidget in their chairs and won’t stay in their seats. She recommends a whole list of fun strengthening activities that you can work into your family routine. Some of the ones that I hadn’t thought of before were pumping on a swing, crawling through tunnels, and heavy work like carrying laundry and pushing a broom or shoveling.

Remember tummy time?

My son tolerated tummy time, as long as there was a mirror (he was a vain little creature) or something that made noise. My daughter just got MAD. And the more we tried, the madder she got. She didn’t start to crawl (just scooted around on her bum) until her favorite baby at daycare, who is 6 months younger, started getting mobile. Unfortunately for her, tummy time is the foundation for a lot of the core strength and shoulder strength she will need for good handwriting. The nurse practitioner in our doctor’s office explained that pushing up on their hands helps babies develop the muscles in their hands they need to crawl, but also to grasp objects, including pencils.

So if your child was a tummy time dropout, like my Ladybug, or if they don’t quite have the strength they need yet, think about some of the ways you got them on the floor when they were babies. Break out the floor puzzles. Put large paper and crayons on the floor and draw a huge map. Put blocks or Legos on the floor. Help them build a huge race track for their cars so they have to crawl around the floor to drive. Set up a crawling obstacle course or scavenger hunt that has them crawling on their bellies under chairs, stretching out one arm to grab a clue under the couch, or balancing (with a spotter!) on a yoga ball in the Superman position.

But shouldn’t they sit and practice, too?

OK, yes, preschoolers won’t get good at writing without writing and drawing. But if they hate it, there are lots of ways they can practice those movements without you breaking out the penmanship paper just yet!

Some great ways to get kids using their hands and arms in a way that will help them write are:

  • Playdough – squeezing, rolling, pinching, stamping. All those movements are great for little fingers!
  • Slime or putty – as much as it grosses me out, kids seem to love it!
  • Painting – with fingers, brushes or sponges. On the table, on the floor, on an easel, or with bathtub paints on the shower wall. Painting on a vertical surface like an easel or wall has the benefit of using their shoulder muscles and can help kids work on their grip, too.
  • Stringing beads – Check out the craft store to find the right size beads for your kid’s skill level. Make patterns, make bracelets for everyone they know, or just string and dump.
  • Sidewalk chalk – this has the bonus of getting them on their hands and knees, working their core and shoulders while practicing the BIG drawing movements they can use for handwriting later.
  • Legos – snap them together and pull them apart. Pick out tiny pieces from the pile.
  • Smaller pencils – When they do write, snap crayons in half or use golf pencils to encourage them to grip down near the tip of the tool for better control. Crayola makes little markers called PipSqueaks that are also great for little hands.

Understood.org has another great list of tips for getting kids to practice writing. Read it here.

So if your preschooler hates writing, or if you can’t begin to guess what they drew you, don’t panic! Give them lots of outside play to strengthen their cores, lots of play on the floor when they are stuck inside, and get creative with seated activities that use their finger and wrist muscles. When they have the strength to sit still and hold that pencil, you might be amazed with that they can draw and write!

Did your child hate tummy time? Who cried more, you or the baby? What is your preschooler’s favorite thing to do on the playground? Comment below to share your ideas!

Join my email list for more ideas, and updates on my upcoming book: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.

How to use your textbook to study

So you’re studying for finals. What exactly are you supposed to study? Is there a study guide? What DID you learn this year? Once you have a big-picture plan for tackling all your finals, it’s time to dust off that textbook – yes, the one made from dead trees – and use it to study.

Textbooks can be some of the driest and most challenging reading that we encounter in school. Did you know that many textbooks are written at a reading level higher than the students they’re written for? You may have a 7th grade history book that is written at a high school level. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me!

But even if reading the textbook is not your favorite way to learn, the textbook can be a great resource when you’re getting ready for exams.I’m going to talk about a few different ways you can use your textbook to study for final exams.

Table of contents

First, use the table of contents. If your class this year has pretty much followed the textbook, then the chapter headings and subheadings are your first stop for a to-do list for what to study. Your teacher may give you a study guide that has more specific information but the table of contents is a great place to start. Make a list of important topics from the table of contents to cross off topics as you cover them.

One way to figure out how much you know about the topic is to ask yourself for each chapter title and heading, “What is the most important thing I need to know about ___?” You could list each heading on a section of notebook paper and under it list each fact that you think is important to remember. This will give you a baseline for what you know. When you open the book you will likely find out there’s more to it than you remembered but you will want to measure what you actually know and that will help you plan how much to study.

End of chapter questions

Textbooks often have questions that are written at the end of each section or each chapter. Some teachers use these questions as homework assignments or assessments for students. Especially if your teacher has not used these questions and you haven’t answered them before, getting ready for your final is a great time to try to answer them. Like you did with the chapter headings, answer as many of them as you can from memory but especially take note of the ones you aren’t able to answer without looking back in the book. Those facts are where you’re going to need to spend some time studying.

Bold vocabulary words

Your textbook likely has some key vocabulary words that are in bold throughout the chapter. They may also be listed at the beginning or end of the chapter and they will almost certainly be defined in a glossary at the end of the book. Make sure that you know these terms and that you can use each one in a sentence that talks about the content of the class.

Maps, tables, and charts

Sometimes these visuals in your textbook are a supplement to the content in the paragraphs, meaning they don’t give you any new or key information that you need to remember. Sometimes they’re there to illustrate an example or a point. Other times, they are there to highlight the importance of a certain piece of information. Use maps to help you answer questions about – obviously – countries, borders, cities, and other geographical features. Also use maps to help you develop answers to why questions:

  • Why did Germany invade Poland?
  • Why were the ancient Greeks sailors?
  • Why does the US export corn?

Looking at the geography of a place can help you better understand the people who lived there. Charts and tables are visual ways of presenting data. For some people, these are better ways of understanding the information and remembering it than reading sentences that say the same thing. If your textbook has charts and graphs, try to figure out what you can learn from them.

Supplemental textbook resources

Newer textbooks often have related websites or digital study tools that can be great resources as you study for your final exam. Look for website links in the introduction to the textbook or in the end of the chapter review materials. Also, check your teacher’s website for links to online textbook tools.

Read it

Sometimes you will actually have to read a chapter in your textbook. This is especially true if you haven’t kept up with the reading lately or if you haven’t done well on some of the quizzes. But don’t try to sit down and read straight through one or more chapter. Use the tips above to organize your reading and read each section and subsection with a question in mind. If your reading doesn’t answer the question, you might need to read again. And take notes or explain to someone what you learned right after you read it, so it doesn’t disappear! You can even make a video or audio recording on your phone of you summarizing what you read that you can play back later.

Weightlifting

In some classes, the teacher seems to actively avoid teaching from the textbook. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how schools work: sometimes teachers are required to use a certain textbook because the school or state picked it or because the teacher who taught before them chose it. So you have to think about whether the textbook has actually been a tool for learning in this class. If your teacher often use other resources, like articles videos and class discussions, then the textbook may not give you a great foundation for studying for this exam. In that case, feel free to use your textbook during study breaks for some bicep curls or some overhead presses. Getting some physical activity in the middle of long study sessions will help your brain work better and help your body feel better after sitting in your study seat for a few hours.

To find out more, check out my video, coming soon to YouTube: How to use your textbook to study

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use your textbook to study
How to use your textbook to study

Potty independence – Zippers and wiping and handwashing – Oh, my!

If you’re getting ready to send your child to kindergarten, potty training may already feel like a distant memory. As I start to think about training my daughter, I realize I don’t really remember how we got my son to use the potty. My daughter is three years younger and a lot has happened in those three years! But I am realizing that the bathroom journey isn’t done with my four-year-old as I start to think about getting him ready for school. There are some things that he doesn’t seem to understand or can’t handle independently yet and they may really get in the way of his school experience! Here are some of the things we are working on.

Privacy

My four-year-old can tell you that the bathroom is a private place and that you need a private place to take off your clothes. And then, we have company, and I see that he doesn’t quite get it. I end up running from the dining room table (which has a perfect view of the bathroom!) to save the guests from an unexpected view!

Depending on the school, your child’s kindergarten might have a private bathroom in or near the classroom, or your child may have to use a multi stall bathroom like the older children do. Even if the kindergarten has a private bathroom, learning how to manage a public bathroom will be important if your child is going to the bathroom during lunch or in the gym.

The core message for your child is that every individual has a right to privacy when they use the bathroom. That means one person in the bathroom or stall at a time, close the door, lock the door, and when you’re done, come out with your clothes on and fastened. This can be tricky because when children are little they live in a world of “privacy… but…,” like Mom and Dad will come in to check on you if you’ve been in the bathroom too long or I’ll come in and wipe when you’re done. As a parent, I definitely don’t get privacy in the bathroom every time and even though my son understands that I want privacy when I’m in the bathroom it doesn’t stop him from coming in when two of his Legos are stuck together. Now is the time to start making those blurry lines around privacy a little sharper and more black and white. It may be a shift for your family, but it’s a shift that will help your child with the transition from being home to being in the more public world of school.

The paperwork

When my brother was potty training many years ago, my father famously told him that “the job’s not over until the paperwork is done.” I know a lot of preschoolers, and if we’re being honest, I’ve known some school-age kids, who still needed feedback on their cleanup job after using the bathroom. Now is the time to step up that gradual release of responsibility. I know that in a perfect world I would rather have my kids walking around clean than have them be walking around independent, but if they’re going off to school, they need to be able to do enough wiping to manage. They likely won’t have access to wet wipes either, so be sure that they get some practice cleaning up after using the bathroom with toilet paper only.

Fears

That brings me to a – perhaps less common but definitely real – problem for many students preparing to enter kindergarten. That is fears about using the bathroom on their own. For my son, it has been the sound of the loud flush in a large public bathroom. He also may run back out into the restaurant if the hand dryer comes on. While he may not encounter automatic hand dryers when he gets to school, he definitely does need a strategy for flushing the toilet on his own instead of hiding outside the stall while I do it for him.

Other kids have different fears that may interfere with their bathroom Independence. For example, in one school where I worked, the older students had convinced some of the first- and second-graders that one of the bathrooms was haunted. At least one student took it to heart and was running off the school bus in the afternoon and barely making it into the bathroom before having an accident because she was so afraid to use the bathroom at school. Another student I know began to avoid going to preschool out of the fear that he would have to poop there and no one would be in the bathroom to reassure him that he wouldn’t fall in. Every kid has their own quirky needs and worries in this area. Before they start kindergarten is the time to take a step back and think about whether any of your child’s peculiar anxieties are getting in the way of their safety and Independence in the bathroom.

Clothes

When I was in Americorps we had a uniform with a belt. It was a canvas belt with a free end that threaded through a metal clasp and then, as far as I could tell, became stuck there forever. I remember an embarrassing and nerve-wracking moment when I couldn’t get out of my uniform belt and had to stand there in the hallway while one of my teammates tried to free me, and I concentrated on not wetting my pants. I was 20, not a child. But that’s the memory I think of when I think about kids wearing belts and buttons and tights to school that they have to get out of to use the bathroom.

There are so many adorable kids’ clothes and school shopping is so exciting. Grandparents get in on the act, too, and buy adorable little outfits for the little boys and girls going off to school. And they make for great pictures! But before you send your child to school in a new kind of clothes, make sure that they can independently unfasten and fasten them in a limited amount of time. My son’s favorite pants all winter were a pair of hand-me-down khakis, but he could not get the hook at the top of the zipper done independently. It resulted in him walking around with his pants half open more often than I would like to think about. When I pick out school clothes for him, I go with all elastic waist and drawstring options that he can get in and out of efficiently I get back to his classroom. As his motor skills get better, more options will open up. And on the weekend, when he’s with the family, he can wear whatever he wants!

Hand washing

Kids are gross. Listen, I taught my son to wash his hands before I even taught him to use the bathroom. There’s a little song I made up and everything. And yet, I still catch him dipping his hands in the water, squirting a handful of soap, and rinsing it immediately into the sink and then drying his hands on my nice clean towel and trying to walk out of the bathroom. Yuck.

To an extent, kids are going to do a bad job with things like washing their hands and faces. Even if they know they’re getting rid of germs, they don’t really get it and they don’t really believe you that washing their hands will keep them healthy. So continue to reinforce this skill with your child and know that the teacher will, too. But you do have to accept that no one is going to supervise them scrubbing their hands every time. Yikes. So you may want to find out whether hand sanitizer is an option. In some schools it is, and others avoid it.

As much as it grosses me out (OK, I have a thing about germs) to think of a bunch of five-year-olds using the same bathroom all day with little adult intervention, I do realize that kids become independent eventually! This last window before your child starts school is your chance to give them the skills to be independent and confident so they can take care of business and get back to their classroom day!

Does your child have total bathroom independence? What if you weren't around to coach them?

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

I wrote a book about getting your preschooler ready for kindergarten. Join my mailing list for updates about the book and tips for preschool parents!



Sorry, I don’t tutor kindergartners – Here’s why

When I used to do test prep tutoring for high school students through some of the big tutoring companies, I pretty much only talked to parents who were looking for that specific product. I’ve been tutoring privately for two and a half years and now that I talk to a wider cross-section of parents, I am surprised by how often parents are looking for tutoring for their kindergartners! Sometimes, they feel their four- and five-year-olds have fallen behind kids their age and want them tutored in basic academic skills like letter names, shapes, and counting. Other times, they want their preschooler to “get ahead” so they can do well in kindergarten.

I’m sympathetic to these requests because I know starting school can be incredibly stressful for parents. I have a four-year-old myself and I find myself wondering all the time if he’ll do well when he starts school or if we have some hard work ahead of us.

As a reading and writing tutor, I don’t take on students that young. Especially working online, I don’t think I can meet the needs of the youngest learners. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think “tutoring,” in the traditional definition, is appropriate for students before around first grade.

I think that four- and five-year-old preschoolers and kindergartners, frankly, have way more important things to do than to sit with a tutor. I would rather see them on their feet, playing, creating, following directions, problem-solving, and learning about the world around them. Children this age have a short attention span for things that aren’t their own ideas and that’s not a problem! That’s the way they are supposed to learn.

That’s not to say they don’t have a lot to learn before they start school. There is a huge range of starting points for kids entering kindergarten. But kindergarten teachers expect that wide range to enter their classrooms at the end of every summer.

In any public school classroom in the U.S., kids are likely to have birthdays at least a year apart. That’s just the nature of the public school system, due to enrollment cutoffs. Teachers expect that and use a variety of techniques to meet kids where they are and bring them through the year. By high school, you wouldn’t be able to guess the age of many of the students.

In kindergarten, though, the differences can be dramatic. But in my experience as a public school teacher, some gaps are much more concerning than others. I would much rather see a student come in to the classroom who can converse with peers and adults, manage her behavior, navigate the classroom space, and solve problems. If she doesn’t know all the letters in the alphabet when she starts school, I can work with that!

Parents are constantly getting the message that they need to get their kids “ready” for kindergarten. There are workbooks and intensive preschool programs. There are family members pressuring parents to do more, comparing these preschoolers to other people’s children who were reading earlier or doing remarkable things before kindergarten! And because parents want the best for their children, they’re not sure where to turn.

Stay tuned for the next few weeks where I will be sharing some ideas for how to know whether your child is ready for kindergarten success and what kind of activities and lessons you can teach to help them be ready or when school starts this fall!

As a special education teacher, I have worked with students coming in for kindergarten screening for years. I will share some of the things that make us wonder or worry about an incoming student as well as some of the best ideas I’ve learned for promoting of the things that really matter for your child going into kindergarten.

Sorry, I don't tutor kindergartners - Here's Why

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Kindergartners need lots of play and real-life experiences, not a tutor.

Coming soon: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten. Join the mailing list for updates about the book and tips and tools to get your child ready for school!



How Do I Study for Finals?

Maybe this is the first time you’ve studied for cumulative final exams or maybe your studying hasn’t worked out so well in the past. But this year is different! You’ve got this! Starting now, you are going to make a detailed plan for how to study for final exams, including what to study, what you already know, learning what you need to rock your exams, all while getting enough sleep and taking some breaks.

Come back for more posts on how to use different materials, like Quizlet and your textbook, to study for different kinds of material.

Soon, the school year will be over and you will be able to breathe a sigh of relief because you did it! But first you have to make it through finals!

Get Ready!

To get started, make a list of all the classes you’re taking and what kind of final test, paper, project, or other assignment you will need to complete by the end of the year. List the due dates as soon as you have them. Great places to look for this information are

  • Your teacher’s website
  • The syllabus
  • The board in your classroom  
  • Your notes from the beginning of the year or semester

If you can’t find the information written anywhere, it’s not too soon to ask the teacher about it. They should be announcing the details soon, but if they haven’t, it’s fine for you to ask. A lot of times when people say they don’t know how to study for final exams, the real problem is they have no idea what they will be tested on!

Once you know what the test will be, you can start preparing for it. We’re going to focus on in-class exams in this blog post. Hopefully, the teacher will give out some sort of study guide. That may be a list of topics to be covered in the exam or it may be a more specific list that includes vocabulary terms and key concepts to review. If you have a study guide, start there.

If you don’t have a study guide, you need to make your own. Start by going through your textbook and your class notes.

  • Make a list of all the chapter titles and main headings from the textbook that you covered during this semester.
  • Make a list of all the major topics you have class notes on.
  • In a science class, list the topics of any labs you completed.

This can look really overwhelming, at first, but soon you will be crossing things off this list, so don’t worry.

If you have your quizzes and tests from earlier in the semester, pull those out too, along with any other worksheets or graded work the teacher has handed back. (If these things are hard to find, come back after finals to read more about how to organize your binders and stay organized all year long.)

Get Set!

Now that you know what’s going to be on the exam, you have to figure out how ready you are now. There are a couple ways to do this. One is to take any quizzes or tests you took during the semester and use those grades as a guide. For example, if you got a 75 on the geometry quiz on triangles last week, you can assume you know about 75% of what you need to know about triangles on the exam. Remember that if the grade you’re looking at is from early in the semester, you may have forgotten some things and you might not score as well today on the same test as you did when you had just learned it.

If you don’t have a quiz grade on the material, take a quick look at the topics on your list. How many of them could you confidently explain? How many of them are familiar but you don’t know everything about them? How many have you forgotten all together? Use that information to estimate the percentage for each of the topics on your list. Do you know 50% of what you need? 25%? 99%? These numbers won’t be exact but they will help you decide how much study time each topic needs.

Now, repeat this process for each of the classes with an exam. You might want to do this over a few days, because looking at every grade and every piece of paper in every binder in your bag can be really overwhelming. But don’t wait too long. We tend to avoid things that are hardest for us. It’s tempting to start reviewing for biology if that’s a class you feel comfortable in and leave the geometry for last if it’s not your favorite. But you’ll be more stressed later if you don’t give yourself enough time to study for the exam that will be hardest for you. Be brave! Make your list now of what you need to know.

Decide when you will study

Put your exams on the calendar. Figure out what your schedule looks like between now and the exams. Take a colored pen (or schedule it on your Google Calendar) and draw boxes around the time you have available for studying each day of the week. For example, if you get home from school at 4:00 and homework usually takes an hour, and dinner takes an hour, then maybe you have a one or two-hour stretch in the evening that you can use for studying. If you have a few weeks until your exams, you don’t have to take up every minute of the day with studying. If you work after school on Thursday, you might not squeeze in any study time between homework, dinner, and getting enough sleep. It’s okay that you aren’t studying every waking minute, as long as you have a plan for getting it all done. Studying for shorter stretches of time is better for your brain and results in longer-term learning.

Once you’ve figured out how much time you have to study, start writing in, generally, what you’re going to study at those times. For example, if you’re most worried about your history exam, put some history study time in each of your study blocks, starting this week. If you have an hour to study, you might choose to spend half of it studying history and the other half studying Spanish. That way you don’t get overwhelmed with one topic and your brain has some time to process that information before you study it again. Researchers have found that spacing out your studying like this helps concepts stick in your brain better than when you cram for an exam and try to get it all in the night before the test.

Study!

Now you just have to stick to that schedule. If you have a few weeks until exams, you might want to start studying for the hardest exam the first week, add in the next hardest the second week while you continue studying for the first, and continue to add exams as you get closer to the test. That way, you get the most study time in your hardest subject and continuously review it until the final, while also giving time to your other classes.

What’s Next?

Now that you know what to study and when to study, you may be wondering how to study it? There are lots of different ways to review and study material. You can use tools like Quizlet, your own flashcards, and your class notes to review what the teacher taught you. You may want to form a study group or get someone to quiz you. We’ll talk more about effective strategies to tell you how to study for final exams in upcoming posts.

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 how to study for final exams
Create a simple plan to study for your final exams.

More than flashcards – how to help your child learn sight words

What are sight words?

Sight words, also known as high frequency words, are the most common words encountered in printed text. According to research by Edward Fry, creator of the Fry Instant Word list, the 25 of these words make up one third of all printed material. Some of these words are easy for kids to sound out (like big) while others (like the and was) are irregular or “rule breakers.” Two common sets of sight words that schools test and teach are the Dolch words and the Fry word list.

Why are sight words important?

Strong readers have a large vocabulary of words they recognize by sight. Think about your reading here in this paragraph. Are you sounding out each word or recognizing most of them as whole units? Part of the process of learning to read is adding more words to your sight word memory, which increases reading speed and efficiency. Some words (think little, people, McDonald’s and Grandma) are difficult for young readers to figure out sound by sound, but they quickly come to recognize them because they are seen frequently and/or because they are meaningful and kids are motivated to recognize them!

Why do we have to do sight words for homework?

Some teachers assign sight word study for homework. For some kids, not a lot of practice is needed to memorize the sight words. Others need to look at them, read them and spell them again and again to get them into memory. If a child hasn’t memorized the age-appropriate sight words, it can make their reading slow, choppy and frustrating. It can also make it hard for them to spell in a way that others can read their writing.

Assigning this practice at home lets teachers focus on other aspects of teaching literacy. It also may make sense to practice at home because each child is likely to be focusing on a different set of sight words.

Ways to study sight words

There are lots of ways to make sight word practice fun and meaningful and to get the assignment done without losing your mind.

Tactile practice

Have your child write sight words in a shallow tray full of sand or salt, in shaving cream, or on the shower wall with shower paint. You can also fill a quart Ziploc bag with hair gel or colored liquid soap, seal the bag well, and write words with a finger on the plastic. The bag of gel is my favorite because it’s less messy, but any type of practice that gets your kids saying the word and its letters, feeling the shape of the letters as they write and trace and reading what they wrote is good practice because using multiple senses strengthens the memory of the word.

Use the cover-copy-check strategy:

  • Read the word and spell it out loud
  • Cover the word or flip the card over
  • Write it or trace it without looking
  • Check to see if you spelled it right

Games

When I’m working with kids, I’m likely to turn just about anything into either go fish, memory/concentration or 20 questions. Here are some game ideas for sight word study.

Go Fish: Write the words on pairs of flashcards. Use the cards to play go fish. Deal 5 cards to each player and ask, “Do you have was?” If a player draws a match, make sure they read the pair out loud before you let them keep it.

Memory: Use the same pairs of flashcards to play memory. Lay between 5 and 10 pairs of words on the table face down. Players take turns flipping over a pair of cards, reading the cards and keeping them if they match. Make sure they read the words out loud and don’t just match visually.

20 Questions: Lay out the cards where everyone can see them. One person thinks of one of the words, and the other asks questions to figure out which one it is. Ask questions like, “Does it have the /p/ sound?” or “Does it have 5 letters?” Encourage the child to move the cards around and eliminate/flip over cards that don’t fit the clues.

Online games:

  • Popcorn words on Fun4theBrain.com
  • Sight word games at Education.com
  • There are also an ever-changing array of sight word apps for Apple and Android

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are memory tricks, like learning the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us nachos” to remember that the planets in our solar system are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Remember when Pluto was a planet and our mother served us “nine pizzas” instead? My favorite is the sentence, “Big elephants can always understand small elephants” to help kids spell because.

For sight words, the tricks your child picks will be individual to him or her. Check out Pinterest or search for “spelling mnemonic __” for whatever word your child is struggling with.

Think about meaning

Sight words can be tricky because they make kids remember whether a word starts with w or wh and that the uz you hear in does spelled like the oze you hear in goes.

The question words who, what, when, where, why all have wh.

Does and goes are both verbs and they both get the +es suffix on the end, even though they are pronounced differently.

Spaced repetition

Last, but definitely not least, is the strategy of spaced repetition. The linked video is geared toward medical students, but the idea of the forgetting curve is just as true with kids learning sight words! I’ll post a video soon on how to set up a spaced repetition system for sight words, but here are the big ideas:

If you are starting from scratch, pick five words to focus on. Once the child can read those words accurately on the first try, move those words over and only study them every other day. After a week of studying them every other day, move them to the twice a week group. At the end of that week, move them to once a week, then on to once a month. If the child misses a word, move it back to every day practice until they can do it correctly again. As the child masters the every day words, introduce new ones to work on so they always have about five new (hard) words and a bunch of others that they are getting really good at.

After they can remember a word they haven’t studied in more than a week (monthly), retire the word. It is definitely mastered!

When can we stop practicing?

This question is tricky because it’s different for every child and every set of words. The goal with sight words is accuracy and automaticity. If your child’s teacher is assigning sight word homework, he or she is probably assessing them in the classroom and will decide when to move words out of the practice set. If the child can read the word accurately, with no hesitation, spell the word, and read it when they see it in a sentence or story, they have mastered it and can stop studying.

Boy doing homework

The secret to helping students write better

The problem with a lot of the so-called writing instruction students encounter at school is that it doesn’t actually teach writing. Teachers say things like “Write an outline that shows the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Write one like this story you just read.”

But the problem is poor writers aren’t able to evaluate their own writing the way a good writer, like a teacher, could do. So a poor writer might think she has a topic sentence or a concluding paragraph in her writing. But when the teacher reads it, it’s clear that there isn’t enough information.

So even though teachers might show models of good writing and encourage students to used transition sentences like this author or use dialogue like that author, poor writers don’t have the ability to evaluate what they read or what they’ve written and decide if they’ve met the requirements. Poor writers don’t need more practice with their current skills. Teachers need to teach students to write better!

It just makes sense that what poor writers need is explicit instruction on how to write. A little league coach doesn’t say go out there and hit the ball like Manny Ramirez. A coach says, “Stand with your feet together. Hold the bat over your shoulder. Watch for the pitch. When you see the pitch come over the plate, swing your bat. Make sure you take a big step forward as you swing.” That level of explicit detail is missing from a lot of writing instruction, but it’s just what students need.

Poor writers need clear, predictable structures that they can use to complete writing assignments. It might seem boring to have them follow that formula for paragraph after paragraph but it’s just what a poor writer needs to write a decent essay. For a lot of us, it comes naturally to have a topic sentence that introduces what we’re going to write about in a paragraph. A poor writer may not intuitively include a sentence like that at the beginning of their paragraph. Therefore teaching them that a good paragraph starts with a topic sentence and that a topic sentence goes something like… helps them to organize their writing in a way other people can understand it.

Just like there are steps for solving a math equation, there are steps for putting together a paragraph in many different genres of writing. There are formulas for writing a persuasive paragraph. I like to use the POW+TREE structure. For elementary students learning expository writing, I use POW+TIDE. Most of these structures focus on organizing at the paragraph level, because once a student knows how to write a good paragraph, it’s easier for them to string those paragraphs together to write an essay or even a longer research paper.

Besides paragraph level structure, students also need to learn to write good sentences. For many students, controlling the grammatical structures in a long sentence and making sure the subjects and the verbs agree with each other can be and a very abstract topic. Some schools still give formal grammar instruction that teaches the names of all the parts of speech but even then students may not be able to put them together in a grammatical way in their own writing.

One way I help students learn to write more complex sentences is by teaching them the strategy of sentence combining and sentence decombining. By having students start with simple sentences like “Bob has a red shirt. Jim has a red shirt.” and combining them to make “Bob and Jim have red shirts,” students learn how to combine the building blocks of simple sentences to make more complex ones. On the flip side, I teach them how to take complex sentences and separate them out into their component parts. Like a mechanic taking apart an engine, students understand better how a sentence is assembled once they have taken it apart. 

Editing is another frequently challenging area of writing for students. Although many of them can tell me that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, they have difficulty seeing these things in the middle of a paragraph and correcting them. It’s the same for run-on sentences. They may understand what a run-on or a fragment is, but when it comes to identifying them in their own writing they have a lot of difficulty. One of the main strategies I recommend for this is not a popular one with students. One of the best ways to catch errors in your writing is to read it out loud.

Another strategy, which I teach to students who make mechanical errors, is COPS. Students learn to read a whole paragraph checking each sentence for capital letters, then read it again checking for overall appearance, which includes neatness and letter formation. The third time they read the paragraph they look for punctuation at the end of every sentence. And finally they read the paragraph from the last word backwards until they get to the first word to see whether all the words are spelled correctly. While it is time-consuming, this focused structure helps them make sure that they have not overlooked any errors.

This process of learning the building blocks of writing can be a time-consuming one and it can be frustrating for students, especially those who have been getting by without this knowledge for years of school. But for many students in middle school and high school they find that they can’t get by with what they knew about writing anymore. The assignments get complex and longer. Teachers are no longer as forgiving about mistakes in spelling grammar and organization. Many classmates have internalized features of good writing and seem to be getting good grades effort effortlessly. Students might feel frustrated or cheated, but really the problem is just that they haven’t learned the rules for this kind of writing yet. An academic writing is a rule-based process that can be taught!

If your child struggles with writing and needs some strategies that work, contact me today for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Students continue to struggle with writing when all they get is practice because they are practicing the wrong things!

How to tell your child she has a learning disability

Early in my teaching career, I worked in a substantially separate special education classroom for middle school students with significant disabilities. Many of these students had a diagnosis on the autism spectrum while others had cognitive impairment of varying severity. With some of these students, their impairments were so significant that they were unlikely to notice the extent of their differences from their peers. They got all their instruction with me in the small group classroom, with the exception of art, gym, and music. While they attended lunch and recess and social activities with their middle school peers, they needed the support of small group instruction at their academic level for their other classes.

One graduation night, I was in my classroom with a couple colleagues getting ready for the ceremony. A young adult we didn’t know came in and said, “I used to come in this classroom when I was in middle school. I never got the point of being in here. What do you teach?”

I hesitated, wondering if this young woman was unaware that she had been in special education in middle school. I knew of her, because some of her siblings were still at the school, but I had never met her when she went to school there. I didn’t really know much about her as a learner, except now I knew that she had been in my specialized program as a middle schooler.

I said, “Well, teachers have figured out that some students do their best learning in a big class with about 20 other students and different teachers all day long. Other middle schoolers do their best learning in a small group classroom where they have the same teacher for all their subjects.” She nodded and said goodbye. She seemed satisfied with that answer. But it made me think: what is the best way to tell students about their learning differences and when should they be told?

Now I have been working with a different population of learners. Many of the students I work with have specific learning disabilities in reading, writing or math. Some have diagnosis of dyslexia. I still work with some students on the autism spectrum and others with a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD. While many of these students are younger, I’m starting to wonder at what point they need to be told they have a disability.

While it’s certainly not my place to tell students any information that their parents haven’t explained to them, I do often have to have challenging conversations with students who are noticing their differences from peers and feeling like some of the work is too hard for them or than what they’re being asked to do is not fair.

It seems like third grade is the time that many students start to express this. By that point, everyone in the class knows which students have to leave the classroom to go to another teacher for reading, and which students are either never called on to read out loud or struggle and look miserable when they do get called on. In many classrooms, students protect and help the students who are struggling most. They often will take the lead in reading if they have a struggling reader in their group or jump in to help someone spell a word if they think it’s a difficult one. But 3rd grade is also the time when many of my students begin to wonder what’s wrong with them or begin to see themselves as stupid.

In my lessons with them, I do several things to combat that perception. First of all, I make a point to focus on the strengths of each of my students. Students with terrific vocabularies get asked to teach word meanings to their peers. Students who have had lots of explicit phonics instruction are called on to identify the vowels in a word because while many other students may be able to read the word, not all are able to analyze it in the same detail as my students who have had extensive Orton-Gillingham instruction. I make it a point to call on students to share their background knowledge about sports, or fishing, or animals, if I know it’s an area of interest and strength.

But I also frequently have to talk to students about their weaknesses. The way I do this is I start to ask them questions about things that are easy for them and things that are harder as young as kindergarten and first grade. These young students often have a great deal of difficulty identifying their best subject or their weaker ones. In fact, they often tell me that their favorite class is the one they’re struggling in most. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because that is when they get the most adult attention and help. But older students, beginning in about second grade, can pretty clearly tell me what they can and can’t do. They might say “I love to write but I’m bad at spelling.” Or, “I know all my math facts, but I’m not a good reader.”

For these students, I validate their experience, but I reframe it. If they say “I’m not good at spelling.” I say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you have trouble remembering how words are spelled. Sometimes I see that you get all the consonant sounds right in your words but you mix up the vowel sounds. Is that what you notice, too?” I want them to analyze specifically what they can and can’t do so that they’ll be able to see their own progress. I also don’t want them to think of themselves as being bad at something. Having a growth mindset means that they see their struggles as goals they have not yet accomplished. When we think of skills that way, students are able to see that they make progress from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

These discussions about strengths and weaknesses are the same ones any parent can have with any child, regardless of whether they have a disability. But I think they’re especially important to have with children who struggle particularly in one academic area. It shouldn’t be a secret that students read slower than their peers. The teacher knows it, the parent knows it, and it’s important that we tell the student what we know. They should know that their area of difficulty is not something to be ashamed of. We know it’s not because of lack of effort. And we’re working hard to try to help them develop that skill. They need to know that.

After these conversations about strength and weakness, as a parent, you may want to give the child a name for those difficulties. I worked with one first grader who was incredibly proud to tell me that the reason he couldn’t do the spelling I was asking him to do was that he had dyslexia. What he hadn’t figured out yet is that’s why we worked together in the first place, but those realizations come with time.

Telling your children the name for the struggles they are experiencing can feel scary. The anxiety you may have had about their diagnosis and your worries about what will happen as they grow up may make you want to hide this information from your child. But I believe this is misguided. You can avoid naming your child’s learning disability, but you can’t protect them from it. They live in a world of struggling to read or not being able to remember math facts. In fact, giving a name to the thing that can frustrate and overwhelm them can give them a lot of power. 

These discussions can happen over the course of years, as you feel your child is mature enough to understand different things about their way of learning. Just like with any part of parenting, discussing a child’s learning disability is a long journey. But if you gradually give them information and responsibility, they will be much more ready to take on the self-advocacy and planning responsibilities required to help them succeed in school, college, the workplace and other facets of their lives.