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What your child will bring home in the first weeks of school

The first couple of weeks of school is a blur of backpacks and new sneakers and lunchboxes or lunch codes and locker combinations and bus numbers and paper. So much paper. 

You’ll get in the groove, but until you do, here’s a list of things might come home in the first week or two of school that you need to find and respond to to make sure the year starts smoothly.

Requests from the school

These include anything that the school wants you to fill out and return. It might be:

  • Emergency forms/cards
  • Transportation information
  • Behavior contract/agreement (like an acknowledgement that you have seen and agree to the school or class rules)
  • School handbook (some schools ask you to sign that you have received and read it)
  • Conference schedule
  • Volunteer sign-ups/CORI forms
  • Information from the school
  • Calendar
  • Lunch menu
  • Teacher contact information/welcome letter
  • Supply list
  • Syllabus for each class (high school and maybe middle school)
  • Log-in information for you and/or your child
  • Schedules
  • Bus route information
  • Extra-curricular activity signups
  • Sports information
  • Registration for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts
  • Club schedules
  • Information on extra help from teachers
  • PTA/PTO sign-up forms

Questions you might ask

  • How will I be notified of school announcements/emergency information? – Most schools now use a digital program that lets them robo-call families and/or send out texts and emails, depending on what parents request
  • When is Open House/Back to School Night?
  • When are conferences? How do I sign up?
  • Is there a directory of other families in the school so we can set up playdates and carpools?
  • What are the policies on snacks/allergies, birthday invitations, staying home sick/makeup work, absences, consequences/rewards for behavior, dress code?
  • What are the expectations for homework? How much? When? In what form?

Schools mostly have systems for getting the key information out to parents, so you probably won’t have to track down the answers to many of these. In fact, they should be in the school handbook or on the school or teacher’s website. But keeping your eyes open for this information as it comes in means you won’t miss deadlines and you can get your child’s school year off to a smooth start. Happy back to school!

Don’t forget to download a free binder checklist and shopping list to build a system to keep all those papers organized for your child!


How to set up your child’s paper planner for back-to-school success

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Some links in this post are affiliate links.

‘Tis the season for back to school! Backpacks are packed with sharpened pencils, outfits are coordinated, hair is trimmed. But has your child set up their paper planner or agenda book for a successful start to the year?

Unless your school doesn’t do homework, most students should start learning to use some kind of planner or agenda book in about third grade. Ideally, in third and fourth grade, teachers are telling kids exactly what to write and where.

By fifth grade and continuing through middle school, students should begin to take over the responsibility of identifying and writing down assignments. Setting up the planner ahead of time can be a huge time saver! Here are some things to think about at the beginning of the school year.

Pick the right planner

Your school might issue a planner. The one they pick may be a good fit for your child or it may not. Some obstacles to planner use are:

  • Boxes and lines are too small/close together
  • No place to write non-homework information
  • Gets left at school or lost
  • Hard to find the right page

Look for a planner that fits your child. If they have messy handwriting, you might want to invest in something from an office supply store that has more room to write on each day. This one and this one have plenty of lined space. 

For students who need a little more structure and support to develop their executive functioning skills, I really like the Work-Smart Academic Planner. It leads students through a process of setting goals, identifying challenges, and explicitly organizing their time to meet their goals. Of course, the kids who need this support most will need help working through the process.

Or find or create a template that works better and print out a few copies and stick them in a folder or binder. You can always tweak your customized planner pages when you see what works. Download my sample planner page at the bottom of the post to get you started.

The bonus in creating your own planner is you can pre-type weekly things like vocabulary quizzes, soccer practice, or other activities. 

This is also a great option for kids who lose things. Print a few pages at a time on the brightest paper you can find so it’s easy to find even if it’s between things. At worst, they lose a week’s worth of notes and start fresh tomorrow with a new blank sheet.

Set it Up

You could set up the paper planner week by week. That lets you add and change things as the year goes on, like when a sports season ends or the teacher changes the due date on a weekly assignment. But I will almost always forget. And I know a lot of kids who will forget, too. 

So my preferences it to set up a batch of planner pages at once. Sit down with the school calendar, sports schedule, family calendar, some colored pens or pencils and a big bowl of popcorn and get started! Look at the next 1 or 2 months of events and set up those pages. 

I prefer that students do this themselves, because it helps them internalize the information. But if handwriting is an issue, or your child won’t do it, give them another role, like reading you the items and telling you where to put them.

  1. Decide on a system. If you have color-coded notebooks (and I hope you do!) match your planner notes to those colors. If not, you might want to make after school appointments one color, days off from school another, and leave the homework assignments in whatever pen or pencil your child writes with in class.
  2. Write in any days off from school, after school practices, games, and appointments. You may want to add an extra visual cue, like using a yellow highlighter to label appointments that happen during school time, or adding stars around soccer games to help your child remember to pack his uniform. Some planners come with special stickers for different types of events. You can also get tiny stickers of your own to make things eye-catching. I like these tiny little ones.
  3. Use color to write or emphasize the name of each class that gives homework. If you used a planner that isn’t designed for students, you will have more work ahead of you. Divide the space for each day into blocks by drawing lines. Label each block with the name of a class. Write in colored pen or underline each class name in color. I am about to buy a new set of these pens. I keep them with me at all times when I’m working to color code my planner or notes.
  4. Use a binder clip or a flap of cardstock (a manila folder works) taped to the front cover as a bookmark, so your child can easily turn to this week’s page when writing assignments.

Send the Tools to School

Help your child decide what they will record in the planner. For example, some students are way too brief, and by the time they get home, they don’t remember what “worksheet” means in the math block. Other kids write way too much and run out of space or time to fit in all the information. 

This is where a system of writing notes on the papers themselves can come in handy. Then the planner just needs to say “math worksheet, 9/3” and all the information is there on the worksheet.

Send your child to school with the tools he needs: colored pens or pencils, planner, sticky notes for putting details about an assignment on the assignment itself. 

Revisit the System in a Few Months

Next time you sit down with your child to set up more planner pages, flip back through the last few months. What is working? Is the homework getting written down in a way that is helpful to him? Is he remembering all his assignments? Prepared for soccer practice? Getting good grades on tests?

If the answer to any of those is no, it’s time to revisit the system. If he is missing assignments, where’s the breakdown? Did he forget to write it down? Forget to check it? Do the wrong page number? If he’s not doing well on tests, is he writing down the test date and making a note to study on the days leading up to it, or just writing the test down once? 

Think of the planner as a living document. Setting up the planner for back to school is an important step, but not the only step. Help your child reflect on whether this system works for them and why or why not. They may need something digital, like Google Calendar, or something simpler, like a blank notebook where they write down all the assignments and cross them out when they are done. 

If your child is resisting this process and arguing with you about it, (hello there, middle school parents!!) you may find they have more success going over the system with another parent or caring adult in their life, or with a tutor. Kids sometimes resist help from their parents that they will accept from someone else. Unfair, I know, but true! 

Do you have a favorite paper-based planner? Do your kids embrace planners or avoid them? Comment below!

How to Choose a Device for Distance Learning

Big changes this fall

I thought it would be a while before I had to choose a device for distance learning. My two- and five-year-olds have access to a tablet that just about runs PBS Kids apps, and every once in a while I’ll let my son click through a book on my laptop. We hadn’t even thought about getting a kid-friendly device for a couple more years, hoping to limit the draw of screen time until the kids are a bit older.

That left me scrambling in April when my son’s pre-K class was having weekly Zoom meetings and he was taking a karate class online, too. We repurposed an old laptop. It’s too slow to run everything I need for tutoring, but works fine to just run Zoom. But it’s heavy and clunky and not at all kid-friendly. With remote schooling on the horizon for kindergarten this year, we, like many families, are finding it’s time to choose a device for distance learning for our son. 

What does distance learning require?

Tools and platforms for distance learning

Distance learning seems to be taking a few different forms, depending on the district and the age of students. So far, some schools have sent packets or prescribed practice on a website. That is likely to change as school districts find their groove for distance learning this fall. 

A good starting place for choosing a device is to ask the school district. Districts should be able to offer some guidance about whether the majority of students will be on Chromebooks, or if tablets or Windows or iOS laptops will be more common. If most students are using Chromebooks, a laptop would give good results because you can use the Chrome browser on any laptop for a very similar experience. If students are mostly using laptops, on the other hand, a Chromebook might limit what your child can access.

Some districts near me have provided hardware (usually Chromebooks) to families who need them, while other places have left families trying to choose a device for distance learning on their own. If you’re in the market for a kid-friendly device for distance learning, here are some things it will likely need to handle:

Video meetings

Many schools are using Google Meet for their video meeting platform. It’s designed to run well with Chromebooks and also has apps for Android and iOS. Zoom is another popular choice and it will run on just about anything, as well. The important thing is to make sure your student’s learning device has enough processing power and RAM to run a video meeting with a shared screen without lagging and freezing. Most new devices can handle this requirement, so if you’re shopping for something now, this should not be a tall order.

Another thing to consider for video meetings is your household internet speed. Even with a fast device, limited bandwidth on your network can be a barrier. Now is the time to:

  • Check your internet speed
  • Consider upgrading to a higher speed (a bigger number in Mbps, megabits per second) from your internet provider
  • Consider upgrading your wireless router, moving the router and the kids closer together in the house, or plugging in to the modem for a wired connection for video meetings
  • Manage usage on your home network, limiting streaming, downloads, and other demanding activities during video meetings.
  • Experiment with other things in the house that might interfere. Some people have wireless connection problems when the microwave or another appliance is turned on.

Web-based learning

Browsers and websites are getting more demanding, even as computers get more powerful, so there’s a constant arms race to make sure the hardware can keep up. Just about anything on the market today can handle web-based practice like Khan Academy or iReady, or videos on YouTube. 

Submitting work

Older students, especially, will be required to upload evidence of their learning.

  • Documents – Google Docs is the first choice of many school districts and it’s my recommendation for students, whether the district offers it or not. Google Docs (and its spreadsheet buddy Sheets and presentation pal Slides) runs in a browser on any computer or through iOS and Android apps.
  • Videos – These can be uploaded to a teacher-selected platform or sent via YouTube or Google Photos. Most devices on the market today will have a webcam, but doublecheck before buying a low-end laptop or Chromebook.
  • Images – A device with a camera (like a tablet or phone) can easily take a photo of written work, or use a free app like TinyScanner to scan the page using your device camera. You can get creative with a webcam to capture a still picture as well, using careful positioning of the work and the camera.

Laptop – more features, higher cost

One of the more expensive, but much more flexible, options you can choose as a device for distance learning is a laptop computer. Depending on your choices (and there are so many options) you can spend anywhere between $300 and $1000 on an adequate laptop. If you can make the investment, and your kids are of an age where they can take care of a laptop for 5 years or more, consider stepping up to a laptop with more RAM and a faster processor to have a device that can handle new software as it arrives. 

Apple

The MacBook is a more expensive laptop for distance learning than comparable Windows machines. There’s nothing a student needs a Mac for, but if your family has mostly Apple devices and you want to keep things consistent, one nice option is this refurbished 13” MacBook Pro. It’s less expensive than a new Mac, but powerful enough to handle distance learning. 

Windows

There is a dizzying assortment of laptops on the market that run Windows. Some have long-standing brand recognition (HP, Dell, Samsung) and tend to be more expensive. I have had a long string of laptops from Acer and Asus, two less expensive brands, and have had great experiences. One nice option for a Windows laptop for distance learning is this Acer. With a dual core processor and 4 GB of RAM, it would be a great option for productivity and video streaming for a student.

One of the great things about laptops is they arrive ready to use right out of the box. Plug them in and turn them on. However, when you’re planning on lots of computer time for distance-learning, it pays to invest in some of the accessories that will make your child more comfortable and efficient.

Accessories

Having the right accessories can make your child’s distance learning experience less frustrating and more productive.

  • A power strip – This option with USB ports will leave room for a few of the family’s devices, including USB ports to charge things like Bluetooth headphones, tablets and phones.
  • USB hub – One frustrating difference among devices is the number of USB ports. Right now, I have a wireless mouse, headphone charger, and drawing tablet all plugged into mine and there is no room left! A USB hub gives you more flexible options for plugging in peripherals.
  • Headphones – Especially in a household with multiple family members working and learning at home, headphones can go a long way towards keeping the peace. I have these wireless Bluetooth headphones from MPOW and I love them for tutoring online. For a child, these MPOW wired headphones have the excellent feature of limiting volume to safe levels. Another fine option is any “gaming” headset. These are designed for hours of comfortable wear by video gamers and include a microphone for talking to other players.  
  • Wireless mouse – Amazon Basics makes this simple, inexpensive one. A USB dongle stays stored in the mouse when you aren’t using it, but they are so small that I usually just leave it plugged into my computer.
Looking for distance-learning support? Contact me for a consultation to discuss how 1:1 or small-group tutoring can help your child succeed this year!

Chromebook – affordable, simple, fewer features

Chromebooks are popular in schools because they are simple to use (no software to install or troubleshoot) and inexpensive. However, they also have a reputation for being slow and clunky. They could be a great choice to get you through this year of distance learning, and then become the family’s homework computer or backup device. 

Some of the newer ones are finding an audience with people who want a lightweight, simple device for travel or working on the road. Their biggest weakness is that they require an internet connection to get many things done, but so do many of the distance learning lessons schools are offering, so that may be a moot point. You can, however, write in a Google document (or spreadsheet or slide presentation) offline and sync to your Google Drive account when you reconnect. This can be a great option for procrastinators, like those of us who need to use airplane mode to write a blog post, for example…

Here are some Chromebooks that would get the job done, and a few other things to think about:

  • Samsung Chromebook Plus – This 2-in-1 Chromebook flips all the way open to double as a tablet. More expensive than some of the basic laptops but having a touchscreen might be worth it for younger learners who aren’t as deft with the mouse or touchpad.  You could also try out a renewed (open box or refurbished) one from Amazon for quite a bit less
  • Asus Chromebook C523 – This Chromebook from Asus has a 15.6” screen, which is the size I prefer for tutoring, blogging, and heavy-duty writing. It’s plenty big enough for what your kids need for school. This one lacks a touchscreen, which brings the price down.

So what’s the downside of Chromebooks?

Chromebooks sometimes get a bad rap, and they’re not my favorite device for online tutoring. Students using one can’t take remote control of my mouse during a Zoom meeting, which means I have to use some workarounds to make lessons interactive for them.

Older Chromebooks are also known for freezing in Zoom sessions, and for video and audio lag. I think the problem is less the Chrome operating system and more that older Chromebooks were built to be cheap, so they are underpowered.

The big downfall of Chromebooks is they are not as flexible or fully-featured as Windows or Apple computers. They are designed to run web-based applications, anything that can be used in the Chrome browser. Like all computers, newer Chromebooks have more RAM and better processors than older computers. That means they can handle more processes at a time and hold more information at the ready.

So while older Chromebooks can slow down and freeze up when doing demanding work like a video conference with screen sharing, newer Chromebooks can handle that load better. 

Tablets – portable but less flexible

A tablet can be better if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a younger learner. The touchscreen is often more intuitive than a keyboard. Some web-based games and apps may not work as well on tablets, but on the other hand, the world of apps opens up so many possibilities. A tablet would not be my first choice for distance learning for an older student (third grade and up). But it may work if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a child in the primary grades.

iPad

The available apps in the Apple App store make the iPad an easier, more flexible choice among the tablets available. Those features come at a price. But with a case and keyboard, the iPad can be a great tool for academic work, including distance learning. Features are a bit more limited for video conferencing on an iPad. For example, if a teacher shares lesson material in Zoom, a student using an iPad can’t see the teacher’s video and the shared screen at the same time. On a newer iPad, students are able to accept remote control of the host’s screen to click and drag objects, but it can be a little finicky.

Android

Android tablets are getting better, with more apps available every day in the Google Play app store. For distance learning, they are adequate for video conferencing, using Zoom or Google Meet. In Zoom, they can annotate on the screen but not take full control of the host’s mouse. They work better as a secondary device in a Zoom meeting. You can use a tablet as a document camera or for viewing the video meeting only while students work on paper or another device. This tablet from Samsung is a great choice if you decide to go the tablet route.

Kindle Fire – A Kindle Fire tablet only runs apps from the Amazon app store, so it’s more limited than Android or Apple tablets. However, a Fire can be a great, lower-priced option for reading, web browsing, games and media. It is not a great choice for distance learning because of the limited choice of apps. 

There’s no one right answer

When it’s time to choose a device for distance learning, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Older students, in middle school or high school, are more likely to need specialized software downloaded onto a Mac or Windows laptop. Younger students might be overwhelmed by all the options on a laptop and find the simpler, less fully-featured, Chromebook an easier tool. The youngest students may find the keyboard difficult and they might be more successful with a tablet, but that’s a tool that won’t necessarily grow with them as school expectations increase. Ultimately, you know your child best, but I hope this guide will give you some options to consider!

Confused? Overwhelmed? Dreading the not-back-to-school return to school? I’m continuing to offer online tutoring, as I have for three years now, and have several new daytime openings to meet the needs of families with kids at home during the day. Contact me today to find out more about how I can help with reading and writing skills.

Our New Year’s Resolution

I’ve been thinking about goal-setting for 2020. In past years, I’ve dashed off some quick resolutions that look like anyone else’s. By February, I can’t even remember what they are!

This year, I’m trying to be more thoughtful and purposeful about my resolutions. And one of my most important resolutions is to share what I know with students and parents.

I hear frustrations and questions from parents every week about teens who are disorganized, missing assignments and failing classes. I work with tutoring students myself who are trying to keep all the important information for their classes in their heads, or who are drastically underestimating how much time they need to do their assignments. So often, these kids need, and don’t have, a system that works for keeping track of information.

So my first order of business this year is an email course. Over a series of 7 lessons, I’ll be sharing my process for teaching your teens to choose and use a planner to get organized and stay organized for school.

Want in? Join below to get the free email course, “Academic Planners for Success.” Get started with my free, printable, planner page.

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How to Organize a Kid Who Keeps Losing Planners

Does your child have trouble remembering assignments? Know what to do but not where the paper is? Know exactly what is needed….but it’s at school? Well, clearly, they need to use a planner to stay organized.

That seems great, until they lose the planner in a week or two. Then what?

Unfortunately, building a system for keeping track of things around a thing your kid needs to keep track of can be a losing battle. Ideally, using a planner is part of a larger system where there is support at school and at home for building good routines and always keeping the planner in its rightful place.

But if that’s still a work in progress, you might need to use something a little more disposable, or at least easily replaceable, to get the ball rolling. That’s why I created this one page planner template. The idea is simple: instead of a whole year’s worth of pages, which could be irretrievably lost anywhere between school and home, this planner can be printed on brightly colored paper, hole-punched in a binder or stapled right into a homework folder. You can customize the page with your child’s class schedule, more room to write, and weekly reminders like bringing a band instrument on Tuesdays, or studying for a vocab test every Thursday. For most kids, printing these pages two-sided, with a whole week on one sheet of paper, will give them enough room.

Start a folder or binder at home for them to file old sheets in, in case they need to refer to things later. Or increase the responsibility by stapling together a month’s worth of pages as they start to learn to plan for future weeks.

Download the one-page planner printable here.



Preschool: Is there an app for that?

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I read the question from parents often: “What is your favorite app for…” teaching your child to recognize letters, count, learn sight words, or identify shapes and colors. Trick question, my favorite app is real life. It’s free, low tech, infinitely flexible and it works a lot better than any digital tool I’ve ever found.

I’m not anti-technology, and (don’t tell the American Academy of Pediatrics) I’m not even sure how much screen time my preschooler gets. He watches videos on YouTube (his latest request has been videos about food chains, but he also likes the channel King of Random for weird science demonstrations). He has a tablet and we do have some games that I don’t mind. We read ebooks on my phone or his tablet and he plays some computer games with my husband. His pointing and clicking skills are really coming along, but that’s not something I was worried about, to be honest. 

There are plenty of apps in the app store for pre-reading, early reading and early math skills. But if your concern is that your child’s skills aren’t where they need to be, don’t go to the tablet. Put it away and give them your time instead.

Skill-building activities for the family

Read – Reading to children builds their vocabulary and their love of stories. It also teaches them about the world and helps them learn how books work, so they will be ready to learn to read when the time comes. If your preschooler knows their letters, send them on a hunt to find the letter t or the letters t-h-e on a page of a book. This helps to develop their understanding that print is an important part of book pages as well as helping them begin to recognize letters and words.

Draw – Drawing with kids helps them practice important motor skills, but also promotes language development. Ask them what they are drawing. Let them tell you what they want you to draw. Negotiate who gets what colors. Ask them what kind of paper they want and where they want to draw.

Write – Lists, cards, letters, stories. Sometimes this comes out of drawing, when kids want labels on their pictures. Other times, you can invite your preschooler to sit down with you while you make a shopping list or address Christmas cards and see if it inspires them to write. 

Play – Put away the complex toys with batteries and noises and only one “right” way to play with them. Take out something simple like cars, or animals, or dolls, and see where that goes. Teach your kids a simple game like Simon Says or Freeze Tag to help them develop executive functioning skills. 

Be active – Take a hike, ride bikes, or go to the playground. Lots of physical play helps your child be strong and well-coordinated, which is the foundation for success in school. 

When you need to use technology

Into every life, a little laundry must fall. And some dishes. And cooking meals. And long car rides. And waiting at the doctor’s office. For a lot of families, technology is a great tool for helping your child get through those boring moments when you just need them to be safe and let you concentrate on a task. 

And here are my favorite apps and activities for those moments:

Libby – This app works with the Overdrive ebook and audiobook system, available through many public libraries. There are many “read-along” picture books that have a narrator reading each page to the child. These were great for bedtime stories when I was pregnant and exhausted, too. 

Google Keep – I use this app for EVERYTHING. But my son loves the drawing capability. I don’t have any apps specifically for him on my phone, but if all else fails and we’ve been waiting too long for dinner, or I need to talk to the pediatrician without his input, I open up a blank note and let him doodle. 

Teach Your Monster to Read – I think I paid $4.99 for this one. It does a nice job of introducing letter sounds in a game format, but my son found it too hard to navigate at 3.5, and boring by the time he was 4. Not a bad app and very popular, just not a good fit for him.

PBS Kids – My son loves the variety of games available on this app. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what he’s doing once he gets into the app, but I trust PBS Kids.

There are other apps, free and paid, that are decent ways for kids to spend their time. But I make a point of keeping his tablet limited to just a few at a time because otherwise it’s too tempting for him to stare at the screen all afternoon! As it is, he’s usually a little bit bored by the time his sister falls asleep for her nap, or by the time we get off the highway, and he willingly gives it up. 

If you want some low tech options for those moments of boredom, check out my infographic, “Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Wait.” It has five games and activities you might have forgotten about that can keep them engaged, learning and having fun when you have a few minutes to kill.

At the end of the day, I don’t consider time spent on a tablet to be “learning time” for my preschooler, so I make sure that time is a limited part of the day. Right now, it looks like we are in the process of moving out of our living room. But he’s just been playing. He has every toy piled in one corner of the room because he spent the morning running a pet store.

When he gets in from excavating the dinosaur bones in the kit my aunt gave him, he’ll practice his organizational skills by cleaning up toys before dinner. Those are the kind of learning experiences where preschoolers should spend their days. Screen time can be better quality or poorer quality, but it will never replace real life experiences for teaching your preschooler and preparing him for kindergarten!

Curious about how to get your preschooler ready for kindergarten? Conveniently, I wrote a book about it! Check out 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten on Amazon.

Play to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Some links in this post are affiliate links.

Have you thought about getting a workbook to help your child work on her pencil grip? Or learn letter formation? Or make her handwriting neater before she starts school? Hold that thought! There are better ways to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers!

Workbooks are not the right tool for most preschoolers. (Or for a lot of older kids, either!) Kids might be bored or frustrated and learn to hate writing and drawing activities. They might not have the muscles they need for gripping a pencil yet, so workbook practice might not solve the problem, either! Instead, here are some ideas to develop preschool fine motor skills through play.

Messy stuff

I love the messy stuff…as long as it happens outside or at someone else’s house! Um, just kidding, but I do keep my preschooler on a pretty short leash when he wants to paint or play with slime. Last summer, I decided to be the “Fun Mom” and set up his washable paints at his picnic table in the yard while my husband was out there mowing and I was putting my daughter down for a nap. A few minutes later, he came running into the house, so excited to show me that he had mixed the colors together and painted the side of the house and the door of my husband’s car to surprise us. We were surprised, so I guess it worked! And that’s why I only buy these Crayola washable paints.

So now we only do paint or slime at the dining room table, and he has to wash the table before and after. But it’s important, so I try to make time and space for it.

Here are some ideas for messy fine motor play:

Paint – with a brush or with fingers, painting is a great way for children to practice pre-writing movements like drawing lines, circles and dots. For more fun, and to help them strengthen shoulder and arm muscles, put painting paper on an easel, or on an easily-cleaned wall or your glass sliding door. 

Water beads – good lord did I learn to hate these things when my son was two, but he loved them! Make them less messy by spreading a large towel on the floor (they roll and bounce less when they hit the towel. My son liked to play with kitchen tools, like a large mixing bowl, funnel, spoon, an egg separator, and turkey baster.

Fun fact: Did you know if you push hard enough on the plunger of an oral syringe (the kind that comes with the baby Tylenol) you can squish a water bead right through that tiny opening and smash it to bits? Well, now we both know! 

Squirt bottle – add an inexpensive squirt bottle full of water to your wading pool or water table. Squeezing the trigger on the bottle is great for developing little hand muscles. They will love “washing” every surface they can reach, so this usually works best outside. 

Play dough – pinching and rolling and squeezing is all great for development of hand muscles. Make your own or get the store bought kind, but know that stiffer dough takes more muscle and is a better “workout” than super soft dough.

Tissue paper collage – cut up little squares of tissue paper and have them paint glue on their paper and then place the little pieces of paper. They will focus more on precision than strength with this activity, but it’s a good one. Bonus: choose seasonal colors and send handmade art to all those doting relatives!

Cooking – OK, so this isn’t strictly play, but don’t tell my preschooler! Have them help you scoop flour, mix ingredients, roll dough, pinch dumplings closed, whatever they can safely do. Bonus: you get to teach them where food comes from and they are more likely to try unfamiliar foods if they make them themselves!

Last Christmas, I got my son these plastic knives, and he is still super excited about cutting up pears, bananas, and sandwiches. They are not at all sharp, but they are a great way to practice good knife habits.

Clean play

Sometimes, Mama just can’t face mopping the kitchen floor again this week! It’s time for some nice, clean, quiet, activities! None of these are the kind of things you want to set up an hour before the family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner or anything, but at least they aren’t sticky?

Clothespins – hang a string across a corner of the room and let them hang all their doll clothes, or their art, with clothespins. Get a big bowl of pom poms (from the dollar store) and make a game of pinching pom poms and dropping them into a small-mouthed bottle. Or write letters or numbers on clothespins and make a matching activity – clip the uppercase A on the cardboard with the lowercase a, clip the right number onto the cup of blocks.

Legos – pinching together and pulling apart the tiny pieces is great for fine motor control. 

Sewing cards – make your own by cutting a shape out of heavy cardboard and punching holes along the edge. Or buy a ready-made set. Either way, tie a knot in one end of a shoelace and show your child how to pinch and pull the free end in and out of the holes. 

Sewing with embroidery floss – I never did get a set of sewing cards, but when my son was desperate to get into my yarn stash, I set him up for sewing with a large plastic needle, a length of embroidery thread, and a square of mesh from an onion bag stapled to a cardboard frame. He made some very interesting modern art that I would love to frame.

Stringing beads – this can be anything from big chunky wooden beads on a length of rope or cord to little plastic pony beads on an elastic string. Start with whatever size you think would be fun, not frustrating, for your child, and try smaller ones when they meet the challenge. Stringing macaroni, ditalini, or ziti on yarn serves the same purpose, if you don’t have any beads around. Oh, and when your little nugget makes you beautiful jewelry? You find the outfit it goes best with and you wear it with PRIDE! (Dads, you’re gonna have to wear yours, too.)

Puzzles – Again, go from chunkier to tinier as your child masters them. 

Hardware – Take a thick chunk of scrap wood and partially pound some nails into it, or make some pilot holes for screws. Give your child a small hammer (tack hammer) or short screwdriver and some safety glasses, and let them go to town. Yup, they might pinch their fingers, so do this one with supervision. There are toy “pounding benches” too, but the real stuff holds my son’s attention for much longer.

Tape puzzles – I can’t remember where I saw this, but I’m sure you can track it down on Pinterest. Take painter’s tape or masking tape (the former is easier to peel and the latter is more work to peel) and lay strips of it, criss-crossed, on a surface where the finish won’t peel off. Think glass sliding door, plastic table, vinyl floor. This can even be done on a high chair tray while you make dinner. The challenge for little fingers is to pick at the tape until they can peel up an edge. It’s so satisfying to pull up the whole strip! The “puzzle” part is figuring out which strip to go for first.

Rubber bands and soup cans – Multi-colored bands are more exciting, but any will do. Show your child how to stretch the bands around a soup can or water bottle. The bands should be tight enough to make them work a little, but not so small that they are easy to snap. 

Lite-Brite – remember Lite-Brite? Remember those tiny pegs that you had to shove through those little holes in the black paper to see the picture light up in color? What a great fine motor activity. For less than $15, you can get the fancy new LED version on Amazon. 

Some kids are happy to do any of these activities, while others are bored by them or avoid them no matter what you do. Don’t worry. If your child isn’t eager to sit down and build fine motor skills, pull back a little and reintroduce them in a month or two, or try a new type of activity. For some kids, especially kids who aren’t comfortable sitting in a chair or who don’t have strong arms and shoulders, these activities can be uncomfortable or even painful. Maybe your child needs to focus on gross motor development first, before they feel comfortable with these fine motor activities. Follow his lead and keep the activities light and fun! That’s the best way to help kids make progress.

Comment below: What’s your child’s favorite fine motor play?

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How to Take the Study Break Your Brain Needs

OK, you’re back to school and things are ramping up. You’re fresh, you’re motivated, and you are going to study this year! But you might be wondering if you are doing it right or how to study more effectively. When a test is coming up, you may be tempted to stay up all night studying, skip meals, or take your notebook to the dinner table with you. But don’t do it! Especially as the test gets closer, what your brain might really need is a break. 

How do you know when you need a study break?

  • Have you ever realized that your eyes have been moving back and forth across lines of text for minutes but when you think about it you have no idea what you’ve read?
  • Or have you ever woken up in the morning or stepped out of the shower and found that something that was driving you crazy suddenly made total sense?
  • Your brain needs rest, including sleep, as well as good nutrition, to build memories and work optimally. That’s why when you have a period of intense studying before a test, it’s extra important to schedule in breaks.

Why take a break when studying?

Your brain is not a muscle but building memory sort of works like building muscle. If you are interested in fitness, or if you paid attention in gym class, you probably have heard that your body needs rest days to repair muscles and strengthen them. That’s why a schedule like lifting weights every other day or taking weekends off from running helps athletes build strength and avoid injury.

And your brain needs those rest breaks to consolidate information. Your brain does a lot of work when you are sleeping and one of those jobs is to store and organize information you learned during the day. Have you ever had a dream about a test coming up? Or dreamed that you were being chased by giant oboe after you auditioned for the orchestra at school? Some scientists think that dreams are one way the brain processes information from the day.

Without enough sleep, your brain has trouble forming new memories and you may make mistakes or lose focus when you do take the test. So sleeping and resting while you are studying is important to help your brain work its best.

When do I need a study break?

When I’m working on a big task (like writing these blog posts), I schedule my breaks. That way, I don’t stop writing when I feel bored or when things get hard. Instead, I know that I’m going to write for 25 minutes at a time (I use – and love – the Pomodoro method for planning demanding brain work) and then I’ll get up for a 5-minute stretch break. If I’m going to work for longer, like a couple of hours, I schedule a longer break, like 30 minutes every two hours. 

Some people find it disruptive to have to get up when the timer goes off, so you could set a task goal instead if the timer stresses you out. Take a stack of 15 flashcards and decide to learn them before you get up or stick a bookmark at the end of the chapter you are reading and stop there. Using shorter, more intense, periods of study is one way to study more effectively. It may seem like breaks make the whole process take longer but the real challenge with studying is that if you sit there too long, you get less out of each additional minute of studying. After a certain point, you are just wasting your time.

What’s the best place to take a study break?

I’m a big believer in fresh air for study breaks. If the weather’s nice, take a walk around the yard or at least go open some windows. Even if the weather is cold and snowy, getting a few minutes outside can be refreshing. If you can’t make it outside, think about a place away from your study space where you feel calm. Make sure you get up and walk during your break, even if you feel like you don’t need to yet. Be proactive when you take breaks. Don’t wait until you are stiff and sore and have a headache before you get up to move.

Make sure that the place you pick for your study break isn’t so great that you won’t leave it when the break ends! For example, if your roommates or your whole family are sitting in the living room watching a movie, you probably don’t want to join them on the couch. You don’t want to get sucked into the movie and forget to go back!

What should I do on my study break?

Physical movement – Walk, stretch, do jumping jacks. Studying or reading often causes us muscle strain and fatigue. Moving your body during your break can make you feel more alert and more physically comfortable when you sit back down to study

Eat and drink – Get a healthy snack (think about the protein, fats and healthy carbs your body and brain need for energy first. Don’t always go for something salty and delicious!) and fill up your water bottle. Or go for herbal tea. Try not to overload on caffeine. It will help your focus in the short-term, but too much caffeine can make you feel worse later when it wears off, as well as being dehydrating.

Use the bathroom – This is not something you need to be told, I assume. But while you’re in there, take a minute to run cold water over your wrists or wipe your face or eyes with a cool towel to help your feel more alert. 

Fun distraction – It’s so tempting to pick up your phone when you get to break time! After all, if you’ve been following a good study plan, the ringer is off and maybe it’s even tucked away in your bag, so you haven’t looked at it in a long time! But be cautious. It’s so easy to get sucked in to checking social media or texting your friends back and it might be hard to put it away at the end of your break. Also, if you’ve been reading all night in your textbook and notes, more reading on your phone won’t give your eyes and body the rest you need to come back to studying feeling refreshed. You can set a timer for the end of your break time, as long as you are able to put the phone away when it goes off!

How do I end a study break?

  1. Make sure you do make it back from your break. Use a timer or a helpful friend to keep yourself accountable for sitting back down then the break is over.
  2. Take a minute to clear your workspace and get everything ready. Throw out any trash, put away the materials you don’t need any more and find that fresh pad of sticky notes you realized you need.
  3. Check your plan and cross off anything that you’ve finished. 
  4. Decide on your next goal so you know when you will take your next break. Set a timer if you need one.
  5. Get back to work!

Studying is often a lonely and boring activity. Unless you love the class and material, sitting down your own to learn and review isn’t a favorite task. But keep your goal in mind. Starting now and putting in the time to master this material is going to set you up for success on this test, and in the rest of this course! 

Schedule a bigger reward for all your hard work when the test is over or you’ve learned all those Spanish verbs. That way you’ll have something to look forward to like ice cream with your friends, a good movie or some quality time with your favorite video game. 

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Organizing Google Drive for Back to School

That first homework assignment of the year hits, your child opens her Google Drive and whoa. If it was a desk, papers would be spilling out everywhere and you’d be getting a recycling bin and a broom. And maybe some Lysol.

But it’s all digital, so how do you tame last year’s digital clutter and clear the decks for a brand new school year? The steps to organizing Google Drive for back to school are simple: Out With the Old, In With the New, and then Make it Pretty and Keep it That Way.

Out With the Old

If your child is in middle school or high school and has been in the same school system for a while, she could have years’ worth of documents and files all jumbled up in one folder, many with the name “Untitled Document.” If you or she really, really, need to, you can spend the day opening each file and putting it in the right folder. But thanks to Google Drive’s “Search” feature and the way most teachers work, she’ll probably never need anything from previous years. So I recommend sweeping it all under the rug.

  1. Create a folder entitled “___grade and older” (fill in the blank with last year’s grade).
  2. Click and drag, or click one file and use shift and the up or down arrows to select as many files as you can. Drag them into the “old stuff” folder. Repeat until you have all the old stuff hidden away. All you should see is the one folder.

In With the New

Now it’s time to create a system so this year’s documents don’t end up looking like all the old stuff.

  1. Create a folder for the current year. Call it “__ grade.”
  2. Double click on that folder and open it up.
  3. Inside that folder, create a folder for each class. English, Math, Spanish, Science, Social Studies. Create them for any electives that are likely to have computer work, but if a class like Band or PE won’t have any documents, it doesn’t need a folder. Remember, these folders are free, quick to create, and easy to delete, so I err on the side of making more folders, rather than fewer.

Make it Pretty

In this step, you can add color to the folders, or add period numbers to the names of the folders if you want them in schedule instead of alphabetical order.

  1. Right click on the folder title. 
  2. Click “change color.” 
  3. Choose a color that matches the physical binder or folder for that class. Teachers might assign each class a color, but if not, your child should pick a color for each class to make organizing easier all year.

Use it wisely

Now that you’ve spent all this time organizing the Drive, it’s time for your child to take over. There are a couple habits that will help your child keep their folders organized and functional.

  1. When you’re doing work for a class, open that class’s folder. Any document you create will be filed right in the open folder. That way there’s no “remembering to file it.”
  2. Name your documents! If your teacher doesn’t have specific rules for naming files you send or share with him, I suggest using just a few words about what the assignment is about, like, “math chart” or “vocabulary list.” You can search Google Drive, which is very helpful, but it’s easier to search if you give it a title that tells you what’s in it.
  3. Review once in a while. At the end of the month, or at least at the end of the marking period, spend a few minutes cleaning up any stray files from the last few weeks of school to keep things clear.

That’s about it. Google Drive is an excellent, user-friendly tool for students and adults alike. They are adding more helpful features all the time and I’m hoping it will be around for a long time. So the time you spend helping your child develop systems for staying digitally organized with Google Drive now will save them a huge amount of time for years to come!

If you’d like to see these steps in action, check out my YouTube video: How to Organize Your Google Drive Folders for School.

My book! It’s here!

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It’s September. Back to School is in full swing for most big kids, or it will be this week. Now it’s time to turn your attention to your little people, the ones with a year or two before they start kindergarten. 

If your child is four, or even three, you might be watching the big kids getting on that yellow bus and thinking about how far your child has to go before they get to “big school,” as my four-year-old calls it. I wrote this book as a response to lots of questions and anxieties I was hearing from parents, some about specific skills (“How many sight words should my child know when they start kindergarten?”) and some about broader concerns (“What if my child is too afraid to ask for help?” “What if they won’t eat their lunch?”)

After years of getting to know kindergartners as a special education teacher, I have seen many successful transitions to school from many different families. I have also seen some kids struggle for reasons that have nothing to do with how smart they are or how much they and their parents want a good school experience. Sometimes those concerns or differences work themselves out over the following year, but other times kids fall behind and stay behind because of something that they needed way back in kindergarten.

So I wrote a book about it. 

It’s a quick read, focused on 4 skill areas that make a difference for kids when they start school. There are sections on physical skills (self-help as well as motor skills), learning skills (like independence and following directions), social skills (self-advocacy and interacting with others) and academic skills (nuts and bolts things like learning their address or phone number). 

And, maybe the best news of all, it’s FREE on Amazon until this Thursday, 9/5. Grab a copy for yourself and please share with anyone you know who has a future kindergartener!

Download a free AM Routines checklist and join my email list for more ideas and updates on my brand new book 4 Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.

What is (or was) your biggest concern about your child starting kindergarten? Leave a comment below.