Is your child hyperactive or does he need better core strength?

A couple years ago, I read about an eye-opening study by an ADHD researcher named Dr. Carsten Vogt that put the whole “kids need recess” debate into perspective for me. Intuitively, we know kids need to move and we know we feel better when we move than when we are stuck in an airplane seat or flopped on the couch all weekend. It’s all about core strength!

But this study demonstrated that kids with weak core muscles who were being evaluated for ADHD had higher levels of movement (which could cause them to be rated hyperactive) than kids with strong core muscles. Basically, kids with weak muscles can’t sit still so they look fidgety and inattentive, so they are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD! But it’s not their brains that can’t pay attention, it’s their bodies! Or rather, what their brains need is a stronger body to sit on top of!

Whoa.

A diagnosis of ADHD can have life-long consequences and it comes with a whole host of educational, medical, and social-emotional decisions and work to be done. But what if some of those kids who can’t sit still just lack physical strength?

Even without the large consequences of an ADHD diagnosis, poor core strength can affect kids in many ways. Throughout the school day, we ask them to sit and stand and reach and write. It all starts with a strong, stable core.

But do you have to put your preschooler through core strengthening boot camp? Nope! Read on for some playful ways to get your kids off to a (physically) strong start at school.

What does poor core strength look like?

Kids with poor core strength slump their shoulders forward when they sit. They might get fatigued easily when they run or have poor balance. They might always be looking for someone to push them on the swings or boost them up a ladder on the playground.

Miss Jaime, O.T. adds that leaning on you, the couch, or the table are more signs of poor core strength. So is sitting on the floor with legs in a W shape, with their feet behind them. A weak core can make kids fidget, swing their feet, or frequently switch position. Are you always asking your child to, “sit up,” “sit down,” or “just sit STILL!”? Maybe the problem is their bodies aren’t ready for those challenges.

This post from Skills for Action has a ton of photos and illustrations of what a child’s posture should look like. It really helped me understand what core muscles do!

Why is a weak core a problem?

At school, kids often have to sit on the rug or sit in chairs, or on backless benches in the cafeteria. Without core strength they lean and slump. They may be distracted by their uncomfortable bodies or feel tired. Try it now. Pull yourself up into your best charm school posture. Then slump down into your regular Friday afternoon, barely awake, posture. Which one makes you feel more energetic? Smarter? More alert and ready to learn?

Poor core strength can make it harder for kids to learn to write and read. They have to be able to control and coordinate their eyes, hands, arms and fingers and that’s harder if they are focused on just keeping their bodies upright.

Outside the classroom, weak core strength can affect kids’ performance in sports because it impacts their stamina and their balance. It can affect some classic kid activities like climbing the ladder to the slide, swinging on swings, biking and swimming.

And kids don’t want to do activities where they don’t feel successful, so a kid with a weak core isn’t going to be the one begging to practice riding his bike! So if you notice your child has a weak core and is having trouble with these activities, you may have to trick them into getting excited about core work with some of these fun activities!

Strengthen your child’s core (and yours!) through play

While this post from the Child’s Play Therapy Center recommends “good old fashioned outdoor play” to develop kids’ core strength, you might want a little more direction or guidance. Here are some of my favorite activities, collected from the sites I mentioned above:

  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Play Twister
  • Pumping on a swing
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Chores like shoveling snow or carrying groceries (OK, this is secretly my favorite because I’m the mean mom that makes my 4-year-old do these things already)
  • Obstacle courses with crawling  
  • Simon Says with whole body movements (Simon says “do a bear crawl” or “hop like a frog”)
  • Yoga – I like the Cosmic Kids Yoga channel on YouTube for keeping my 4-year-old engaged and moving
  • If you’re looking for something with more clear instructions, this ebook from OT Mom looks great. I haven’t gotten it yet, but you can’t beat $5 for an ebook full of photographs of activities.

Good habits for building core strength

I hate to say this because it was a time of misery and strife at our house, but it’s time to work in some tummy time. I know! You thought you would never have to torture your children with it again once they could crawl and walk but working in that position is great for developing the neck and back muscles that support your child’s core. Lie down on the floor with them to drive cars, do a puzzle, or read a story. Bonus points if your activity has them shifting their weight to use their arms.

Another good habit that was frequently recommended is to have kids pay attention to the way they’re sitting. If they sit down to draw or write, remind them they want their feet on the floor (which reminds me, I need a small stool to put under the dining room table!) and their backs nice and straight. Give them seating options like backless stools and exercise balls while they are watching TV so they are less tempted to sprawl on the couch.

And model good habits! Maybe start reading bedtime stories sitting on the floor instead of curled up on the couch. Be active with your kids to help make you both stronger! Plus, it’s fun!

This is personal

My son is struggling a little with core strength now. He loves to write and draw and he loves to run and jump but he has never been a confident climber nor does he have the best balance. He’s an active kid with lots of terrific, age-appropriate skills. But when I watch him struggle to kick across the pool in a swimming lesson, my heart sinks. I want him to be able to do everything he wants to do and I feel like I’ve neglected this part of his development.

My plan this summer is to change the way we move, mix up our activities and give us both more opportunities to build core strength! Here’s to lots of bike rides and endless games of Simon Says!

What’s your favorite way to encourage core strength development in kids?



Is your child hyperactive or are his core muscles weak?


Creating Space and Time for Homework

Although some researchers question the usefulness of homework, it is still a standard practice in most schools to assign some work for students to do after class. This can vary from independent reading to elaborate projects that involve multiple trips to the craft store. My philosophy on homework is that it should be minimal and that it should be reinforcement and extra practice of things that the child has already learned in class. That means if they did not master the concept in class, they shouldn’t be expected to spend hours learning it at home, especially in elementary school.

That also means that in a perfect world, teachers should be assigning homework that students can mostly do on their own. As a parent, you can help your child succeed by creating a space and time in your home where he or she can do homework to the best of his or her ability. You can also check their work to make sure they have put in their best effort and not made any obvious, careless mistakes. However, I believe that if homework is taking a lot of parental effort every night, something is wrong. Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher if the homework seems extremely difficult or if your child doesn’t seem able to complete it. It could be a sign of a more serious problem.

Here are some ideas for creating a homework-friendly environment in your home, no matter how old your child is.

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

In many schools, homework begins as early as kindergarten. Although I don’t think this is the best use of after-school time for five- and six-year-olds, families that have to get in the habit of homework for their youngest learners have some specific things to consider.

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

These are the years that children are building their homework habits, so it’s very important to help them develop a positive attitude towards the work they have to do. And investment in good habits now will make the homework process go more smoothly for years to come.

Readiness

Make sure your child is ready to work before you sit down to do homework. Younger children may come home from school hungry, tired, or just fidgety from being in their chairs all day. Follow your child’s cues to determine whether they need a play break when they first get home, or maybe a snack. Some children, on the other hand, do their best work right after school when they’re still in “learning mode.” Develop a schedule that works best for your child’s energy level.

Close Supervision

The younger children most likely need a parent in the room or even at the table with them to read directions, redirect them if they get distracted, and give them praise and encouragement. As your kids get more familiar with the homework routine, try to set short independent goals, like asking them to copy their spelling words onto the paper while you load the dishwasher. Be sure to give them lots of praise for their independent work when you check in a few minutes.

Minimize distractions

Young learners can be distracted by a TV on in the house, other children playing while they’re trying to work, or just the stories or worries going on in their own brains. Set up homework in a quiet part of the house where your child is unlikely to be distracted by family members or other excitement. Gently redirect your child to the homework task when they become distracted it try to change the subject or tell a story. You are trying to help them learn to redirect their own attention. This skill, part of executive functioning, is essential for managing attention and keeping themselves motivated as they get older.

Tools

Have the right tools available. The type of homework your child brings home will vary, but helpful tools to have on hand are:

  • Pencils, a sharpener, and erasers
  • Crayons or colored pencils
  • Lined paper that’s appropriate for the size of their handwriting
  • For math, a ruler, graph paper, object like coins or small blocks that they can count and used to help them solve problems
Resources

Children this age are likely to complain if you try to tell them something that is different from the way their teacher taught it. However, they’re also likely to need help doing the work. Your child’s teacher will likely share resources for homework at the beginning of the school year for along with the homework paper. If he or she does not give you the information you need, ask whether the school district or textbook they use has a website with parent information. There are often videos and demos that you can use to learn how to help your child.

How Much Time?
  • It won’t be productive for your young child to spend too much time at one sitting in front of their homework. If you notice your child getting fatigued or distracted, and you find it’s too hard to get them back to work, it might just be time for a break. Try splitting homework time up between after school, evening, and the morning before school, if needed. Some parents report that homework that might take an hour in the afternoon takes just 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning.

 

Grades 2-5

Homework is pretty common by the time students are in second grade. They are likely to have math practice, spelling or vocabulary work, and maybe an independent reading assignment. Many elementary teachers stick to a predictable weekly routine for homework, which means you can usually do the same at home. Here are some tips for helping your elementary students get their homework done.

Prepare to work

Just like the younger children discussed above, older elementary students might also need a break after school or snack to help them get ready to sit down and do their homework. However, by this age, they should be able to communicate to you how they’re feeling and help you strategize about what they need to get ready to work. That doesn’t mean they should do whatever they want before they start their homework. Come up with a reasonable plan by working with your child that might give them a short time to play followed by homework, followed by the reward of more time to do their favorite activities.

Increasing Independence

As children move through elementary school, they develop more independence and more responsibility for completing their work. By third grade, students should be able to complete a simple assignment such as questions about a story or a math worksheet without direct help from the parent. they may still need you close by. Many elementary students are not ready to work on their homework all alone in their room, and may do better at the kitchen table or another public part of the house where an adult is available if needed.

Managing Distractions

While older children might be able to manage their attention a little bit better than they could a year or two ago, they are still likely to be distracted by the TV computer or cell phone in their work environment. If you are supervising homework, it’s a great idea to make this a no screens time for yourself as well. That ensures that you were available to help your child, as needed, and keeps your child from being distracted by your device.

Having the Right Tools

Children should be bringing home any tools that are specific to their assignment, like multiplication charts or science notebooks that have the information they need to refer to. It’s still great to have a set of household homework tools, though, which will keep your child from rummaging through the house for the things she needs to complete an assignment.

Kids need access to the right tools to make homework time go smoothly

  • Pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners
  • Lined paper, blank drawing paper, and graph paper
  • A calculator if your child works with one in math
  • Ruler, protractor, and other math tools needed for their curriculum
  • Highlighters, glue sticks, colored pencils, markers, and crayons
  • Parent knowledge/resources: Many schools or textbook publishers have online resources like videos to refresh your child’s memory about a concept or skill. If the teacher has a class website, make sure to check it for homework reminders or tips and strategies.
How Long Will It Take?

The amount of homework assigned increases from year to year throughout Elementary School, with schools often following the recommendation that students should have 10 minutes of homework per grade. That means first graders would have 10 minutes of homework while 5th graders might have 50. However, students are very different from each other, so homework that takes one child 15 minutes might take another child an hour. Be mindful of time of day when scheduling your child’s homework, and be willing to intervene if you find that the homework is taking too long. It doesn’t benefit your child to struggle alone over an assignment they don’t understand, and it certainly doesn’t help them if you give in and leave them through it step-by-step. If they are struggling with an assignment, encourage them to try their best and help them communicate with their teacher to explain where they got stuck.

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

By 6 or 7th grade your student should be able to complete their assigned homework independently. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook! As a parent you can continue to give them appropriate setting to work on their homework and to monitor to make sure they are doing what needs to be done and that they understand the material. By this time in their school career kids are finding the teachers grade many of their independent homework assignments. That’s why it becomes extra important that you not hover over them and that you don’t help with the work itself. Teachers are using homework to measure what students learned in class and how independently they can apply it.

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

The same kinds of tools that they did when they were younger: pencils, pens, highlighters, markers and scissors.

Internet Access

Middle schoolers are more likely to need an internet connection to complete their homework, either to read an assignment or to do research. Many teachers use online format for studying, practicing math skills, and turning in assignments. The stayfocusd extension for Google Chrome is a free tool that prevents users from going to certain blocked sites (chosen by you) too much, or within certain hours of the day.

Accountability with Independence

Monitor your middle schooler and make sure they are using their access productively, and not just texting their friends. Help them manage their time to make sure they can get done all parts of the assignment in the time they have.

Help to Plan

Middle School also tends to be a time of longer, independent projects. Help your middle schooler break down the project into all of its steps and develop a timeline for completing it that doesn’t have them staying up all night the night before it’s due!

Someone to Manage the Schedule

Keep a family calendar that includes family events, sports commitments, and other activities that will keep your student busy in the coming days and weeks. Refer to it when the student is planning a project or preparing to study for a big test.

A Place To Work

Middle schoolers are often trying to gain more independence and would prefer to do their homework in their room or in another location where they have more privacy. For most kids this is a good choice, but you know your child best. If you feel they’re not ready to work without direct supervision, set a policy that homework gets done in the kitchen or dining room.

Consider getting a portable box or caddy that holds all of the homework tools so your child can choose to work flexibly, such as using the floor for a big poster or doing long reading assignments in their quiet bedrooms.

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

By high school, your student will be almost completely independent with doing their homework. But your job’s not done yet! As classes require more homework and more long-term projects, students will probably need more help with the planning and scheduling of their homework. Continue to use a family calendar like the one recommended for middle schoolers and continue to talk to your child about their upcoming deadlines. Helping them keep these assignments in mind means that they are less likely to forget something and less likely to leave it until the last minute.

Changing Assignments

Besides having more homework in high school students are also more likely to have in depth, detailed assignments. They are less likely to have simple worksheets. Help your child learn to set reasonable expectations for how long a piece of homework will take to avoid staying up way past bedtime trying to finish an assignment that is taking longer than expected. Another way to help your child finish his or her homework efficiently is to make sure they have a range of study and reading strategies that are appropriate for the material there being asked to work with. Often, these strategies are taught as part of academic classes. If your child class is not teaching the difference between skimming and close reading, or different tools for note taking while reading, you might want to seek out a study skills class or some tutoring for your child. These strategies are essential tools that he or she will need to succeed in high school and Beyond. Some students are able to come up with strategies of their own and put them to work while others need to be explicitly taught how to do these different kinds of reading.

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

It’s tempting to take a hands-off approach to high school homework because your child is likely to be studying material that you haven’t looked at in years, if you ever studied it at all. However, you don’t have to be an expert in the content to help your child study or complete their work. Offer to quiz your child on material for a test using the questions at the end of the chapter or the study guide they’ve been given. Invite your child to talk through their understanding of a complex concept. Even if you don’t know enough to tell them whether they are right or wrong, hearing themselves explain the concept will help them to identify any gaps in their understanding.

Keeping Them Organized

One final and very important step that parents can take to help their high school students succeed is to help them keep their materials organized. For some students, that just means getting them some supplies like appropriate binders and notebooks and some kind of file box or accordion file for work that does not need to be kept in the binder but should be stored for future reference. Other students need a more Hands-On approach to organization. If your child needs it, make sure to sit down with them periodically, once a week once a month or once a quarter, to go through all of the papers in their binder. Make sure that they are filed with the correct class materials, that old papers are cleaned out and either thrown away or filed, and that work is dated and put in order so that assignments are easy to find. Even good, responsible student fall into the Trap of cramming papers in a folder or binder thinking that they will remember where they put them or that they will clean it up later. By giving your child time space and encouragement to organize their materials, you are helping them build good habits.

Finding Time for Sleep

Beyond helping your child organize and complete their homework, it is important that parents promote sleep for high school students. Successful students are often very busy with sports, activities, classes, and social engagements. Sleep often takes a backseat to all of these more exciting activities. But research shows that when teenagers don’t get enough sleep, their academic performance and their mental health are impacted. Consider household rules like keeping cell phones out of bedrooms or setting a lights-out time for homework activities. It might not be easy for your child to fit everything in earlier in the evening, but it is important to prioritize their sleep and health!

The Pay-Off

So why should you put so much energy and effort into getting homework done, when your name isn’t even going on the paper?

Although it’s still a hotly contested topic, homework is here to stay. Unless your child attends a school that does not assign much (or any) homework, these assignments will be part of your life for years to come. Creating good homework habits as early as you can will help your child succeed and reduce the stress in your home in those precious hours when you are all home together!

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!

If homework is overwhelming at your house, consider finding a tutor. Contact me at readingwritingtutor.com for a free 30-minute consultation and find out if online or in-person tutoring is the right way to help your child succeed!

 

Should You Buy Fidget Spinners?: The Good, The Bad, and The Distracting

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A couple months ago, I noticed that a hobby shop in my area that specializes in remote control cars had a hand-painted sign out front: “We Have Fidget Spinner Toys!”

I thought, “How great! What a boon for parents of kids with ADHD or anxiety! They’ll be able to find what they need locally, instead of ordering fidgets from catalogues.” Then I thought, “Fidgets are going mainstream! Kids with autism and ADHD are going to look cool!”

And then the fidget spinner nonsense started.

Teachers I know started confiscating them. Kids started fighting over them and stealing them from each other. Schools started banning them, and kids started figuring out how to sneak them into school.

In short, fidget spinners have followed the trajectory of any other elementary school fad, from Silly Bandz to Beyblades to POGs in the 90s. I’m sure it was the same with marbles back when they were the thing.

But is that all they are? Do fidget spinners really benefit kids or are they just toys?

The idea behind fidgets is this: some kids – heck, some people, because adults do it, too – concentrate better on work when their hands are busy with something else. For years, my occupational therapist and teacher colleagues have been building in creative, age-appropriate ways for kids to fidget. We have recommended strategies for kids with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and disruptive behaviors. In grad school, I had a professor who passed a basket of fidgets around to us at the beginning of each 3-hour class.

I teach fidget use in my class. I have a basket of slinkies(like these), Silly Putty, stretchy critters, and stress balls. I get a lot of them from the dollar store, or from the party aisle where I can get a pack of 4 or 6 items for a couple bucks.

From second grade on, my students seem to really enjoy having something in their hands while they are working hard. Most first graders and kindergartners find it too distracting, so far.

My introduction goes like this: “These are fidgets. Some people find it easier to concentrate on their reading or listening if they have something to keep their hands busy. So pick one out that you want to try. But remember: your job is to [lesson we are about to do]. If your fidget distracts you from [lesson], it might not be the right fidget for you today. We might decide to put them away if they are distracting.” I give the same introduction to second graders as I do to middle schoolers.

My students learn to ask, “Is this a good day to get a fidget?” and “Can I put this back? I’m distracted.”

They learn to accept, “That fidget is distracting both of us because it keeps rolling away. Please put it away, and try a different one tomorrow.”

I am 100% in favor of fidgets. I use them myself, and my students benefit from them.

But I have concerns about the explosion of fidget spinners. They’ve become a status symbol, like the fads I mentioned above. Kids are trading them and collecting them instead of using them quietly .

I am sure that the excitement will fizzle out soon. I just hope that teachers don’t get so fed up with fidgets that the kids who find them helpful aren’t allowed to use them when the excitement dies down.

What else works as a fidget?

In my master’s program, I took a behavior class. We were asked to pick a behavior of our own, develop a plan to reduce it, and collect the data. I had this Puzzle Ring, made of four interlocking silver rings. I wore it every day, and dozens of times a day, I found myself taking it apart, spreading the pieces out along my finger, and putting it back together. I was having the worst time decreasing this behavior, until one day, I was playing with it in the car. It slipped down between the seat an the center console, and I never saw it again! My behavior dropped to zero instances a day! I shaped my behavior! Sort of…

But I replaced that fidget with another. My favorite pens are the best because they come apart in five places. It gives me plenty to do in a staff meeting. Plus they write beautifully.

And this is the essence of a good fidget: It is functional (I can write with it, and it doesn’t distract others). It helps me think (When I’m busy with my pen, I’m listening instead of wandering around in my email). And it doesn’t distract the people around me, because we all have pens. And at the end of the day, no one notices that I need it to get my job done.

So do fidget spinners serve that purpose for your kids? Or is it time to look for something different?