When grades start to drop

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There is nothing worse than seeing your child work hard and go to school every day, only to watch their grades drop. Working harder isn’t solving the problem. Your child needs some new strategies for conquering this year’s new school challenges! d it’s a time of year where I often hear from concerned parents, worried because “my child’s grades are dropping!”

Why does this happen and how can we support students to help them finish the term strong?

Why are my child’s English grades dropping as the quarter goes on?

It’s partly the kid…

In most middle schools and high schools in the US, the school year is divided into 3 marking periods – the first ends sometime in October or November, the second sometime in January, and the third at the end of the year. Eight or 9 weeks is a long time for a student that age to focus on and work toward a goal like getting an A in English.

For young students, teachers set very short-term goals – read this chapter today, or learn these vocabulary words by Friday. As students enter middle school and high school, the deadlines get farther out and the assignments get bigger. But their brains don’t necessarily grow at the same pace. Sometimes students’ grades drop because they don’t understand (or can’t do) what it takes to get a good grade on an essay, or a mid-term exam, or a large project.

If your child’s grades are dropping, sit down with them and look at the grade book. Make a list of any missing assignments they can still turn in, and look at the big projects ahead. If this month is busy with sports, holidays, and social commitments, it’s a good idea to take the calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.

A word of warning: teens don’t always appreciate it when parents help with homework. Some do. Some appreciate help with schoolwork because they are truly in over their heads. But it can be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for teens to admit they have fallen behind. No one likes that! Please make sure you’re helping your teen through this with empathy and patience (or find them someone who can!) because if they are upset about the kind of help they are getting, their brain just doesn’t work as well and it can be counterproductive.

Then look at the list of what needs to be done and plug that work into the “white spaces” on the calendar. If there’s a math test on Wednesday, but your child has events on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll have to make sure he does most of his studying the weekend before. This type of planning doesn’t come naturally to adolescents (or to me, for that matter!) so using concrete tools like paper and different colored pens or highlighters, or a post-it note for each task, is much more effective than just saying it out loud.

If there’s no way to fit everything in, it’s time for triage! It may be that your student has fallen behind this term, or that her courseload is just overwhelming right now, or she has overcommitted to activities. It does happen that sometimes there is just more work than time. Some things to think about as you prioritize together what work absolutely needs to get finished:

  • Value of the assignment – If making and studying flashcards will take hours, but the Spanish quiz is only worth 5 points, that might be low on the list. On the other hand, if a large history project will make the difference between passing and failing the class, it should get a lot of time on the calendar, even if it’s not due for a few weeks.
  • Grade goals – if your child is a straight-A student, you probably stopped reading this post a while ago. Students who are struggling in a few classes might need to prioritize to get the grades they need. If they are failing one class but could turn in missing work and get the grade up to a C-, that’s probably more urgent than doing great on the math test that could take them from a B to a B+. Every teacher will say their class is important, or they are all important, but if your child’s grades are dropping, you need to do the math yourselves and find the true priorities.
  • Motivation – Sometimes it’s a teacher they don’t get along with. Sometimes it’s a subject that they just hate! For some students, the idea of pouring all their effort and time into their most hated class just feels like torture. Pick your battles. If they understand the consequences of neglecting that awful class, and it’s the best way to get them to move forward in their other classes, that may be the best option. As a parent, it’s very difficult to say “well, don’t do that one, then.” But if they are making the choice between a bad grade in one class, or bad grades in multiple classes, the choice is pretty clear. If putting aside the requirements for their hardest class gets them moving on other things, it can be the right tradeoff – in the short term.

It’s partly the school…

Isn’t it weird that one summer, we pick up an elementary schooler at the end of the last day of school, and somehow, magically, we send a middle schooler back to school in the fall? All of a sudden, they enter this new world of junior high with lockers, and changing classes, maybe a new device, and new people. But they are the same kids!

Nothing magical happens during that summer, so it makes sense that lots of kids are still learning skills they need to succeed in a more challenging junior high environment. Too many middle and high school teachers have an attitude like “they need to be more responsible” or “they need to understand that they can’t wait until the last minute” but they haven’t taught the skills that lead to “being more responsible.”

Some skills and tools schools should be offering include:

  • One consistent system for notifications/reminders and assigning work. Students shouldn’t have to check Google Classroom and Canvas and that one teacher’s website and the school calendar to find out everything that’s going on.
  • A practice of consistently and effectively using planners. Students need to be taught what to write on today’s planner page, what to write on the assignment’s due date, and how to use all that white space to, well, plan their week. Learning to do this can take up a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it pays for itself for the rest of students’ lives by giving them a set of tools for managing their work through school and into adult life.
  • Instruction on goal-setting and planning. Not everyone is shooting for 100% in every class. But students need to understand how to calculate their average and understand what a poor test grade or missing assignment can do to their grade for the term.
  • Models and templates. Especially at the beginning of the year, students need their teachers to model what an organized notebook looks like. Also, a clean locker, a completed page of homework, an effective paragraph. We cannot take for granted that kids just know what we mean when we tell them to produce these things!

It’s partly the world around us…

My focus isn’t at its best all the time, either. We are still recovering (medically, educationally, financially, emotionally) from a pandemic, even though things are looking “back to normal” in most places, most days. Parents are working at least as much as they ever did to keep their kids fed, safe and housed. There is not a lot of quiet space and time in our 21st century lives. The pressure on teens is very real and they can feel overwhelmed!

With so much going on around us, it’s especially important to go back to basics. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting some time to rest and relax. We can combat stress the world throws at us by keeping the predictable routines that work for us. Those routines will give them the support and structure they need to focus on their school work.

This, too, shall pass

It’s temporary, this academic stress. The marking period will end. The soccer season will end. Even this difficult English class will end. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. The lessons you take from this situation will help your child avoid the pain and stress of getting overwhelmed by poor grades. Next year, instead of “my child’s grades are dropping,” I hope you’ll be saying, “OK, the hard part of the school year is coming. Here’s our plan for prioritizing, using tools from the school and managing our energy so we can all make it through in one piece!”

Do you love checklists? I love checklists so much that I made these Revision and Editing checklists for finishing written work. And I love you all so much that they are free! Grab them below.

Best Apps for Time Management

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved the independent work folders my second grade teacher used because they meant I always had something to do while I was waiting for the people around me to finish their work. I remember thinking very clearly, at the age of seven, “I’m going to use folders like this in my classroom.” In the years that followed, I tried many planners, lists, folders, and eventually technology to give me that same sense of organization and productivity. But what does this have to do with my favorite apps for time management?

I love a good productivity tool. I crave lists and organizing structures. In fact, I like the system-creating part so much more than I like the actual doing part. Oops. So if an app is going to help me be more productive, it has to be simple to use, integrate smoothly with my other tools, and avoid stealing my limited attention. I’ve tried them all, so if you’re looking to get yourself more organized or if you’re looking for the best apps for time management for students, I’ve got you covered!

My favorite apps for time management

Keeping track of time – clocks and calendars

Calendar: Google Calendar  is my go-to app for time management for students, and for myself. For students, plugging in their recurring commitments (lessons, practices, games, family commitments) gives them a visual of how much time remains for their work. The thought “That paper isn’t due for a week!” is easier to defeat when they can see that 4 of those 7 days have after-school activities. 

Clocks and Timers: I use my cell phone clock for just about everything. Alarms remind me to get up, pick up the kids, take things out of the oven, and leave for events. For my kids, asking the smart speaker to set a timer is the simplest way for them to remind themselves. My son sets one for his after school break to remind him to start his homework. Set recurring alarms for daily events, or set them as needed for anything you might forget to do (or forget to stop doing!)

Work time: When I am having trouble getting started on a task, or when something feels like it’s going to take forever to finish, I use the Pomodoro Technique [https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique] to manage periods of work and breaks. The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes of work, then a 5 minute break timer, and repeating these intervals until the work is done or you get to a “long break,” which for me is either lunch or the end of the work day. I usually use the web-based timer at pomofocus.io. Forest is a cool app for Apple and Android that represents each Pomodoro/task as a tree. To care for your trees, you have to finish your task!

Keeping track of tasks

The simplest way to keep track of what needs to be done is a list on a whiteboard. If the person you’re trying to help with time management is a child or teen, hanging a whiteboard in their workspace (or in a common family space) is a very simple way to make tasks – homework or chores – visible.

For a more high-tech solution, I recommend Google Keep for anyone with to-do’s in just one or two domains. You can have a single “Homework” list and add and delete things. A new note for each homework task works, too. But if there are more than you can see on the screen, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. You can copy cards, set reminders, and archive notes you don’t need anymore.

For complex organization needs, like keeping track of tasks for a whole business or a family, I recommend Trello. I think if you’re looking for best apps for time management for students, Trello is probably too powerful and complex for what students need. But for parents, teachers, and professionals, I think it’s amazing. I use Trello because the app syncs with the web version, I can add collaborators to individual cards or boards, and it can sync with Google Calendar. With templates for things like my blog, and I can duplicate a whole board, or a template card, for a new task. I am also still adding to my systems for automating reminders so nothing falls through the cracks.



Keep track of care and feeding of humans

As I sat down to write this section, I realized I never finalized my grocery order for the week, which is bad news bears because I’m working with a narrow window for picking groceries up this afternoon. And my family is weirdly obsessed with eating several times a day. So I know a lot about the struggle of making sure I and everyone in the house get enough food, water and sleep. And I also know how hard it is to keep track of those things on a busy day (especially for certain kinds of brains)!

The best apps for time management around taking care of your body and brain depend on which things you are responsible for. For a student who needs to remember to drink water and stop for lunch, an app like Habitica might be the solution you’re looking for. Habitica is an app that gamifies completing routine tasks. You pick the task and how often you want to do it, and the app prompts you to get it done, then gives you points for doing it! To keep your avatar alive and healthy, you have to show up consistently and do your habits.

Habitica works for many adults, too, but for me, there are just too many things I’m juggling in an average week and I quickly got overwhelmed by wanting to put everything in the app. 

For me, Trello is still the best solution to all those family management tasks. I have a template for a weekly meal plan and when I’m organized enough to plan meals, I can drag and drop our favorite meals onto the weekly list. I use my grocery store’s app to fill my cart and comparison shop, then pick up my groceries curbside. A timer reminds me when I need to leave my desk and cook dinner. 

I also know a family that loves the Paprika app. You can import recipes from anywhere online, or type in your own. Paprika can sync between devices (although you have to pay for each different platform you use), track your pantry, and help build your shopping list. It has worked well for the family’s main shopper and cook to share their knowledge and some responsibility with others in the house.

Keep it simple!

You must remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that!” It’s tempting to go for a high-tech solution, one more app on your phone or iPad, to help you become more productive. But sometimes the best “apps” for time management for students are actually low-tech things like whiteboards, or features on a device that you already have, but can use more effectively. Sometimes the best time management technique is not wasting a ton of time looking for the perfect solution, but instead using the tools you have to quickly implement a solution that’s good enough.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list, set a timer and get something done!



How and Why to Use a Color-Coded Binder System

In elementary school, staying organized was pretty easy. Homework was the same, week to week, and teachers gave lots of support and reminders, and parents did the same at home. Some kids internalized those routines, and others got by with help. And yes, sometimes work got forgotten in a student’s desk or lost in the bus, but the stakes were low.

Fast forward to middle school

Different teachers all day long, and lockers to manage. Suddenly, kids are responsible for holding on to work for days at a time and finishing it at home, then returning it for a grade. They are taking notes and getting materials they need to study for a test weeks from now.

Some teachers explicitly teach systems for keeping it all organized. Some teams of teachers plan for all the kids they teach, so everyone’s materials match. And in some schools, with some teachers, you are on your own.

If your student hasn’t been given a specific supply list to follow, start here with a color coding system. And don’t forget to grab your color-coded binder checklist PDF down below!

Why color-code?

A color-coded system is ideal for kids who:

Color coding folders is a great way to help kids get organized

  • Are distractible. A consistent color system gives kids with ADD/ADHD an extra layer of prompts.
  • Are poor readers. Being able to remember that all red items go with science, for example, means they can more quickly find and file items without taking the time to read each handout or page of notes.
  • Have poor short term memory or slow processing speed. These kids might need more time to make decisions about where to put things, and again, the colors add another layer of cueing.
  • Are anxious. The time pressure of making it from one class to the next can make adults crazy, let alone an anxious kid. A color-coded system is ready to put things in and quick to straighten up later if something gets hastily misfiled.

How to set up color coded binders

  1. Decide on a type of binder. One big, zipped, binder (like this one from Case-It) works well for fifth and sixth grade, or for classes with workbooks (and not a lot of handouts or note paper). A series of 3-ring binders (I like these sturdy ones from Avery) works for students who can get to their lockers a few times a day, and is better if teachers tend to give many handouts.
  2. Shop. Back to school time is a great time to stock up, of course. Invest in sturdy binders (marked durable or heavy-duty) so they can withstand lockers, backpacks, and teenage indifference.
  3. Organize. Label each folder, binder and notebook with the name of the class (and for the notebook, with the date you started it). Put the colored pencils or pens in a pencil case or zippered pocket. Put the key to the color code in 4 places: a plastic sleeve in the front of the binder, a plastic sleeve hanging in the locker, taped into the cover of the child’s planner/agenda book, and hanging over the homework area.
  4. Use it! Start class with the correct binder, folder, and notebook at

    Use colored pencils to mark each paper you get in class with the date.

    your desk. Take out the matching colored pencil. Put a quick mark in the top right corner of each page the teacher hands out. Better yet, put the date and a quick direction on each page. Write “study,” “read,” “have Mom sign” to remind yourself what to do with the paper.

  5. Maintain it. At the end of the

    Every evening, put new papers in the binders when you start your homework.

    school day, or when you get home, do a quick visual check. Are all the items in the folders marked with the right color? Are there any papers that belong somewhere else? Use the three-hole punch to put any papers you are keeping in the notebook rings.

  6. Clean it out. At the end of the week, month or term, look at every page in a binder. Remove any old work (stuff that’s been graded and notes/handouts when the test/project/unit is completed), clip it together and put a sticky note with the date on it. Then file it in long term storage (or put the whole thing in the recycling, if you’re sure you don’t need it again).

This system is a great start for kids who don’t have one. As you put it into place, you will start to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. There is nothing magical or sacred about this system. The magic comes from putting something in place and working with it. Subscribe below to get a free PDF checklist for setting up your color-coded binder system and a shopping list for picking up the materials you need.



Need help getting your child organized? Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation to help you decide if tutoring is a good fit.

Using Google Keep with Students

One of the biggest factors that causes students in middle and high school to struggle in school is lack of organization. No matter how smart and capable a student is, it’s very hard to get good grades if they are disorganized. They lose papers, forget assignments, or turn in projects with missing details.

But how much time have your child’s teachers spent teaching him or her how to organize themselves? Sure, lots of teachers require things like outlines and study guides, or folders in specific colors, but that doesn’t mean the approach they teach will work for your child. I spent years quickly writing my papers, then reverse-engineering the outlines because I just don’t plan my writing well by using an outline, but it was required.

As I got older, I developed a system that worked for me of making lists, using a planner, and scheduling my work. I used paper for a long time, then switched to Evernote, which I liked because it could sync between my computer and my phone. I kept trying other apps, but never found the perfect one.

A couple years ago, I discovered Google Keep. It’s everything I need, and I think it’s perfect for my students, too!

Here are some reasons to give it a try.

One login

If you are logged into your Google account, you are logged in to Google Keep. No additional passwords, and no remembering to check the list because your reminders pop up in your browser or you can get push notifications sent to your phone.

Visual options

I love the visual display, which looks like an array of Post-it notes. You can color code notes for home, school and work or for each of your classes. Add bullets or numbering to your list. Drag and drop notes or pin them to the top of the page to keep them front and center in your attention.

Checkboxes

Checkboxes are the feature I use most in Google Keep. With one tap, it’s easy to change a list of steps into an organized checklist. Drag and drop items into the order you want to work on them. Copy and paste a list from a website or document, then click “add checkboxes” to turn it in to a list.

Sharing

As with Google Drive, you can share a note in Keep with another Google user. This is great for parents who want to share a list of chores or a group working on a project.

Reminders

Set a reminder to study for the test every day at 7 pm. On Sundays at 4, get reminded to pack your backpack. Put in a note to remind you when you are home to find a baby picture for the yearbook.

‎Archiving

Set a reminder to check your grades 2 weeks before the end of the quarter. Then archive the note to get it out of sight until you need it. When you finish a project, archive or delete the note so it doesn’t clutter up your list.

All of these features make Google Keep easy to use and convenient. It’s a great choice for helping students get organized, and it’s freely available as part of a Google account, so why not try it?

Does your child need some extra help getting organized for school? Are they having trouble finishing projects, getting poor test grades? Maybe it’s time for a tutor. Contact me today for a free consultation.

 

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 2

In my last post, I showed you how to create a Google calendar for the purpose of using it to keep track of homework. In this post, I’ll show you how to set up that calendar and record homework.

Open Google calendar. Click anywhere on today’s date, and a small box pops up so you can create a new event. I like to set these up so they match the student’s class schedule, so type “1 – Math” if the first period class is math. Then click “Edit Event.”

On the “Edit Event” screen, you have 2 areas to edit.

  1. Click the box that says “All day.” That takes away the time options, and also causes this event to show up at the top of the calendar, which is what we want. Next to it, click “Repeat” and from the “Repeats” dropdown, select “Every weekday (Monday to Friday).”
  2. Pick a color for that class. I use the same color coding system as I do for notebooks and folders, so I checked red for math. This adds an extra layer of visual cueing to the planner.
  3. Click Save.

When you’ve added repeating, all-day events for each academic class, your calendar will look like this.

That is the one-time setup part. Now you have your planner ready for the year or semester.

Using Your New Planner

Now it’s time to record an assignment. To write down tonight’s homework, click on the math line for today’s date, and click the “Edit Event” button.

Here is the Edit Event screen. It looks just like the screen where you created the event, right up until the last step. For a homework assignment, you should edit:

  1. The name of the assignment. You can do this right in the box with the subject name, so it’s visible when you look at the whole calendar.
  2. The location and/or description. This can be physical (homework folder), virtual (www.homework.com), or geographic (library). The description box is great for adding details like “only odd numbered questions” or “answer in full sentences” that don’t fit on that top line.
  3. Attach a file, if the teacher has sent a worksheet, or if you have a Google doc with your notes. If you’re working on a device that takes photos, you can also attach a picture you have saved that shows the page number, or the details written down in your notebook. (It’s best to ask permission from teachers/administration if you would like to take photos in the classroom so that your intentions are clear.)

When you click save, you will have to answer one more question. Because this is a repeating event, the calendar wants to know whether to edit just this one (1/30/17), all future events (from today on) or every repeating event. For homework, click “Only this event.”

That’s it! You have saved tonight’s homework to your homework calendar. When you sit down tonight, log in to your computer or pull up Google calendar on your phone to see the assignment, and get to work!

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 1

In this post, you will learn how to set up and share a Google calendar for the purpose of keeping track of homework or assignments. See Part 2 of this post to see how to set up the homework entries and reminders.

Kids lose their agenda books. They leave them in their lockers, on buses, in desks. Sometimes they just vanish without a trace. And they take with them any clue the kid had about what to do for homework.

And then there are the kids that a paper planner just doesn’t work for. Their handwriting doesn’t fit in the boxes, or they keep putting things on the wrong page, and then they are gone forever! Or they write a project or due date down, and don’t check the agenda book when it’s time to do the work.

Turning Google Calendar into an assistive technology to help these kids is simple and helps them to build technology skills that will support them for life. I think this starts to be effective around sixth grade, if there are devices available regularly through the day, or if the child carries a smartphone.

First the child needs a Google account. Log in and choose Google Calendar from the menu of Google tools:

You will see a blank Google calendar, if you’ve never used it before.

 

 

 

 

 

I recommend creating a dedicated Google calendar, called “Beth’s Homework” or something similar to keep all the homework in one place. This is a good practice because hopefully the student will use the calendar to keep track of appointments, sports practices, and important dates down the road, and this keeps all that information from becoming smushed together and overwhelming.

Create a new calendar by clicking on the small triangle to the right of the words “My Calendar.”   There are 3 steps to setting up a new calendar.

  1. Name the calendar. Mine is “Beth’s Homework.”
  2. Share it with others. Type an email address, and choose from the dropdown whether others can view only or edit (including adding and deleting) events.
  3. Click “Create Calendar” at the bottom of the screen.

Tune in tomorrow to learn how to set up repeating events and color coding to make it look like a student agenda book. I’ll also show you how to edit the events to record the day’s assignments.