Five Ways To Use Color To Get – and Stay – Organized For School

We live in an exciting, fast-paced, colorful world. On your next trip to the grocery store, take a moment to drink in all the vibrant hues that companies use to catch your attention and get your shopping dollars. Notice how quickly your eyes can tell the difference between the bright yellow Cheerios box and the blue of Frosted Flakes. Are you taking full advantage of your brain’s response to color in your organizational systems? 

Below are five ways to integrate color into your organizational system for school materials. Try one at a time in the least organized area of your school life, or go nuts and spend the weekend putting together a comprehensive color system that makes you feel organized and prepared for the challenges ahead!

Does it matter what colors you pick? Nope. Choose colors that make sense to you, or that make you feel good about what you’re doing. For example, I tend to make science stuff green because it makes me think of nature. In my personal folders, writing stuff goes in purple, since it’s my favorite color, and I want to do more writing. I’m hoping my brain will tell me how much I want to write when I see those pretty purple materials, or see writing time blocked out on my calendar in purple pen. Do whatever makes sense to you, but do it, and stick with it to see results!

1. Coordinate your class materials

Give each class in your schedule a color, like pink for math, green for science, etc. Match your notebook, binder, and folder for that class. This can take some setup at the beginning of the year, since it’s not always easy to find the colors you want for each type of supply.

*Tip: when you find the colors you need, stock up! Those pocket folders and one-subject notebooks won’t last all year. 

*In a pinch: if you can’t find the colors you want, use a neutral one like black or white and decorate it with markers or colored yard sale sticky dots. This can help when you have the right binder and folder, but you’re down to the last few notebooks in the county.

2. Match your Google Drive folders

This has been a game-changer for me. Between my own classes, material for my students, and my own projects, I have A LOT of folders in my Google Drive. Assigning a color to the frequently used or super important ones makes them jump out at me. Use the same colors as you do for your physical class materials to make things easier to find.

3. Code Your Papers

When you are picking out colored school supplies, grab a set of colored pens, pencils or highlighters, too. When a teacher passes out paper, grab the matching pen for the class and write today’s date in the corner in color. This is especially important if you don’t have a chance to hole-punch papers during the school day, or if you tend to let papers pile up somewhere.

*Bonus points- next to the date, write a verb that reminds you what to do with the paper, like study, file, answer, or get signed. That extra info will save you time when you deal with those papers at homework time.

4. Make your Planner Pop

Remember those colored pens you’ve been using to date your classwork? Put them to work in your planner or agenda book, too. Use the assigned color to write down homework for each class. Have some extra colors? Use one for sports, after school activities, family stuff, or appointments. Or have a special color for tests quizzes, or friends’ birthdays.

*Tip: Use colors for whatever is most important to you, but don’t go too crazy. If you make the system too complicated, you might avoid writing in your planner altogether.

5. Tie in your Google Calendar

All this magical color coding can be carried over in Google Calendar, too! Put your class schedule in as a set of recurring events, then edit today’s event to include any assignment from that class.

All these systems take a little time to set up, but the payoff is huge! Spend a little time before school starts, or some Saturday afternoons, getting all your materials organized, then relax and enjoy knowing that all your stuff is where it belongs!

Five ways to organize your school materials and your digital files to help you stay organized and find things quickly.
If your child needs help getting or staying organized, a tutor can help. Email me at bethsullivantutor@gmail.com to schedule a 30-minute free consultation.

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?

Summer Reading Bingo!

Go read your book.

Did you read today?

You’re bored? How about reading?

How many different ways can you suggest, beg, cajole, or nag to get your kids to pick up a book this summer? We know summer reading is important because it helps student avoid “the summer slide” and maintain the skills they gain during the school year.

Whether your child’s school assigned summer reading books with a book report, gave a recommended list, or just said, “Make sure you read!” the burden of making them read falls to you.

Anywhere they will read is the perfect place

 

Research on learning and motivation shows that giving kids some choice of how they learn increases their engagement.

For kids in the middle grades, getting them to read one hour a day, and at least 11 books a year, raises their reading achievement. But external reinforcers, like prizes, can backfire by sending kids the message that reading is so boring or unimportant that no one would do it unless they got something out of the deal.

The same study showed that reading-related rewards improve the self-concept of middle grades readers who earn them.

So how do you get your kids to read this summer without driving them (and especially yourself) crazy? Try making a game out of it.

My FREE Summer Reading Bingo board has 24 reading-related activities that give kids ideas for where to read, what to read, when to read, and who to read with. Offer your kids a new book for scoring a bingo, or just foster a little friendly competition in the family. Either way, this game gets your child thinking about reading, and sometimes that’s half the battle.

Subscribe to my email list, below, to get your copy of the Summer Reading Bingo board (by email), as well as emails about blog updates and other tutoring news.

 

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Is Reading to Our Kids Enough?

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Some kids do teach themselves to read. But that doesn’t mean all kids can.

How about those people whose kids just taught themselves to read? I saw a Facebook comment recently (because my vice is reading the comments on articles, even though I know I’ll end up angry) where a mom announced she simply “read to her kids and labeled everything in the house and the kids were reading by age 4.” Therefore, she concluded, what’s all the fuss about teaching reading? Clearly, all the other parents in the world just weren’t labeling enough things around their home.

Um, no.

For some kids, it does work that way. I’ve heard plenty of stories about kids whose parents “discovered” they could read instead of “teaching them” to read. As in, one day, little Susie picked up a newspaper and said, “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” But those magical stories stick out because they are not so common. Peter Gray’s article on Psychology Today’s website even claims that “The written word is not essentially different to them than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).” However, the research shows that it’s quite different, and not intuitively learned. I guess my question is, if learning is as natural as people claim, how come it took until 3500 BCE for the Sumerians to come up with written language?

Some kids get left behind by classroom reading instruction.

Although U.S. elementary schools teach the nuts and bolts of reading beginning in kindergarten, and wrapping up, give or take, in third grade, kids don’t always move through the stages at the same pace. Public schools base their teaching on the belief that six is the ideal age to learn reading, but maybe that’s not true. In this article in Today’s Parent, Susan Goldberg talks about kids (some home-schooled) who learned to read anywhere between the ages of 4 and 9. And in almost all those anecdotes, they ended up successful readers who learned easily when they were ready. On the other hand, one turned out to have dyslexia. The real risk for a slowly-developing reader in a traditional classroom is that they will fall behind their classmates if they can’t read the material in class.

The wait-and-see attitude seems risky. Growing up a poor reader can have serious consequences for education, employment, and even health. By fourth grade, teachers have stopped teaching how to read, and are expecting students to use their reading skills to learn new information. That makes it much harder to catch up.

So if you are concerned about your child’s reading, don’t just wait patiently. Talk to her teachers. Listen to what they are doing in class, and find out what else can be done. Consider requesting testing for learning disabilities if your child is getting good instruction and not making progress.

In the meantime, what can we do at home, besides reading regularly?

  • Phonics games – Try this Superhero Phonics Game, or any of these spelling and reading games.
  • Sight word practice – Some kids do well with flashcards, but others need more in depth practice. Try pouring some salt in a shallow pan and having them write out the sight words, or write them with a stick in the sandbox, to help them make the connection between the shape of the letters and the word they make up.
  • Authentic writing activities – Some kids just aren’t interested in learning to read or write when reading instruction starts and they need to see what’s in it for them. One thing that helps is letting them see you write. Send postcards to friends, make a shopping list for their favorite meal, write a story about your last trip to the park and let them illustrate it.
  • Reading with a purpose – Another way to get kids engaged in learning to read is to move beyond the early reading books and have them read something important to them. Show them how to read recipes, or instructions for a science experiment. Hand them driving directions to their favorite places. Have family members send you texts and emails for your child.

These strategies are no substitute for good reading instruction. But if you pick activities that help your child feel confident and interested in learning, you can do wonders for their motivation and make that good reading instruction more effective.

When parents read to children, it enhances vocabulary and comprehension, as well as building positive associations with reading that last a lifetime!

Ways to build responsibility and important life skills in kids (That aren’t homework)

Scouting offers many benefits for growing hearts and minds, but do we have time?

I’m looking at the side of a box of Girl Scout Cookies. (Samoas, if you’re curious. Yum!) As much as I love the cookies, I love buying them from Girl Scouts even more. The side of the cookie box says that the goals of the cookie program include “Goal setting” and “Decision making” . When I was a kid, that meant going door-to-door in my neighborhood, my Nana’s neighborhood, and usually at least one more. It meant dragging all those cookies door-to-door in a wagon, right around Thanksgiving, making deliveries and collecting cash. Although it’s not a strategy I would advocate for an eight-year-old today, it taught me things that sending the order sheet to my parents’ offices never could.

Do kids today have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility?

This has come up a few times lately. A teacher at my son’s daycare complimented me for waiting and insisting that my son (who is two) put away the toys he was playing with instead of tossing them over his shoulder when he saw me walk in. I see that as an important opportunity to teach him about respect for his classroom and teachers, and an extra lesson in the ongoing course Cleaning Up After Yourself 101, which I will be teaching every semester until he moves out, I am sure.

I was also recently talking to colleague who is an occupational therapist. We both work with students with various types of special needs, and we both see the hazards of letting kids grow up without functional skills. But we both admit that our kids (mine a toddler, hers school-age) don’t have enough opportunities to practice them. We both work full-time, and are too busy to fully engage our kids in learning to take care of themselves. When I have a day off, I try to let my son help in the kitchen (he loves to make rice in the rice cooker!) or with other chores (he knows you say “corner to corner…and fold it” when you fold a washcloth, but the rest eludes him so far). But on  weekday mornings, it is all we can do to get two adults and a child fed, dressed, and into the car. And in the evening, I am completely willing to put on a TV show and hope he sits quietly while I make dinner, load the dishwasher, and do whatever else I can manage before bed.

At my house, my son has (and will have, as long as I work full time) fewer chores and responsibilities than I had at his age, if only because my husband and I don’t have enough time to teach and supervise as much as my mom did when I was young. So while I was doing laundry at 10, cooking my own mac and cheese at 9, and peddling those cookies at 8, I don’t foresee my child having the same opportunities.

Are chores and responsibilities important?

The Girl Scouts believe that their cookie sales program teaches “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics,” among other things. The Center for Parenting Education cites benefits like improved sense of responsibility, more self-esteem, and increased ability to tolerate frustration and wait for what they want.
Parents also worry that their children need to learn to:

  • manage time better
  • communicate or speak up for themselves
  • understand the value of money
  • work independently
  • take care of themselves (this means different things at different ages)

So how do you balance the “must-do’s” of your life with the “should-do’s” of building responsibility?

I keep telling myself that the time I’m investing in teaching my son that dirty clothes go in the hamper and dirty plates go in the dishwasher in the toddler years is going to pay off when I no longer see him finish every meal or change every outfit. *fingers crossed*

But what else can we, as parents, do to promote independence in our kids?

  1. Sports – belonging to a team gives your child a whole bunch of people to be accountable to who are not relatives or teachers. Let’s Play names improved confidence, consistent exercise, respect and relationship-building as benefits of playing on a team. For students who struggle academically, it’s important to have something to be good at. For kids who aren’t athletically inclined, it still is important to find them a physical outlet they will enjoy. Maybe swimming, dance, martial arts, or cross-country running will give your child an athletic routine at their pace, even if they aren’t the best, fastest, or most coordinated.
  2. Chores – Simple, but tried and true.
    Age-appropriate chores are tricky to find, but rewarding!

    Giving your kids a routine of chores to be responsible for can help you out, make them feel like team members in the family, and teach them core skills that they will use all their lives. And hopefully, they’ll be more likely to avoid dripping toothpaste on the counter if they are the ones that wipe it down each evening. It can be tricky to find the right, age-appropriate chores. But if you start with things your child is motivated to do, you’ll have won half the battle.

  3. Personal growth goals – What does your child want to get good at? Do they want to become better artists? Learn how to program computers? Write novels? Look for opportunities in your community or online, and then build time for it into your family’s schedule. My husband is (from my lowly perspective) a computer genius. He learned it all fooling around on the family’s computer after school as a teenager. Who knows what your child can accomplish if you give them the basic tools and teach them to make time for what they love!
  4. Learning music has many benefits for a child’s development

    Musical instruments – This might fall under the category of “things your child loves” or it might just be another thing on the schedule. But either way, musical practice teaches your child time management (I quickly learned that practicing 45 minutes the day before my trumpet lesson was not the same as practicing 15 minutes a day all week long). Laura Lewis Brown, writing for PBS.org, cites several long term benefits of music lessons, including improved IQ, increased language skills, and  improved skills in visualizing information (like those needed to solve math problems).

So why didn’t homework make my list?

The wrong homework can be a waste of time!

Eh, I’m not a huge fan of homework. As a teacher, I know that’s borderline sacrilegious. And as a tutor, it seems like a total business-killer, right?

But hear me out.

The average teacher assigns the average homework assignment to the average student, right? Because otherwise, assigning homework would be a planning and management nightmare!

The research shows that homework is not effective for elementary students. In fact, for students with good home support, good homework can be beneficial. For kids with less support around homework, or for students who didn’t understand the lesson to begin with, it’s not so useful. I would still argue that for students struggling to master basic skills (those with reading disabilities) or those with attention difficulties (who have been expending huge amounts of energy to get through the day), homework is a much lower priority than spending an afternoon and evening playing, resting, and doing activities where kids are happy and successful.

Here’s my wish

I wish teachers didn’t have to assign homework. I wish families used that time for a few activities that are meaningful for the family. That’s going to vary a ton between households. For some families, it would be cooking dinner together, for others playing in the yard or attending sports practice, and for others it would be working in the family business. All of these options give kids valuable perspectives and life skills. And I hope everyone would have a routine of reading before bed, or maybe in the morning before school!

For most elementary kids, that type of quality family time, combined with how well-rested and prepared they felt at school the next day, would be what they need to succeed in school. I think kids would do better because family stress levels would be lower and relationships in the house wouldn’t have to revolve around math facts 5 nights a week.

Other kids may need some extra help somewhere along the line. Tutoring, provided in short, frequent, focused lessons, helps kids strengthen weak skills and catch up to their peers so they can make the most of each school day. Although it takes a chunk out of a child’s available time in the afternoon or evening, carefully planned tutoring can make a huge difference in your child’s school success, long-term!

Fighting the Summer Slide

Have fun this summer, but don’t let learning slide!

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The Summer Slide sounds like a lot of fun! Maybe it conjures images of a water slide, with its cool stream glistening in the sun. Maybe you hear giggling children and squawking seagulls.

But it’s not that kind of slide, and it’s really no fun. The summer slide is what educators call the pattern of academic decline that happens when kids take the summer off from school. Students, especially students who struggle to make progress during the school year, tend to lose some of those hard-won skills over the summer. Researchers have known about it for over 100 years and various experiments in summer schools and other programs have been tried.

Some teachers assign summer reading or summer homework in the hopes that it will help kids hold on to what they have learned. Some families tackle these assignments head-on in June and get them done. (Not my family, but I’m sure people do.) Others struggle through the summer, or finish them at the last minute, or not at all. Summer reading homework isn’t effective for many students, and it’s not enough for many of them.

Meanwhile, schools talk about personalized learning but there is only so much one teacher can do for a whole class of students, especially once they leave for the summer. Still, personalized learning has the right idea in mind, that the goal for all students should be mastering the material. It just might take some students longer than it takes others.

What are some ways to make the most of your child’s summer time?

How can you set your child up for success in September, without ruining their summer? Here are some suggestion to fit in summer learning without the battle!:

Play games
  • Scrabble – a classic board game that asks children to use think about the words they see, and then connecting new words to them. It is great for building vocabulary (as kids argue about whether their opponents’ words are real), practicing decoding, and reinforcing spelling.
  • Scrabble Junior – This variation on the classic game is geared toward 5-12-year-olds, but is most appropriate for kids at the younger end of that range. At its easier level, Scrabble Junior has kids using their letters to complete the pre-printed words on one side of the board. This is a great option for kids working on letter identification or basic reading or spelling. The reverse side of the board works more like traditional Scrabble, with players building words of their own with the letters they have drawn.
  • Boggle or Boggle Junior- In Boggle, players shake the covered tray of letter cubes, then find more words than their opponents in the connected letters that land in the tray. Boggle Junior simplifies the process with picture cards and a smaller number of letter cubes. Players use the letter cubes to spell out the word shown, either while looking at it, or with the letters in the word covered to add another challenge.
  • Try Q-bitz to strengthen visual problem solving – A Q-bitz pattern card gets flipped over, and each player tries to build that same pattern with the patterened, two-color cubes on their tray. There’s a Q-bitz Junior, too, with simpler patterns.
  • Sum Swamp or Equate for math fact practice – Sum Swamp is a simpler game in which players roll dice and add or subtract the digits on the dice. Equate looks a lot like Scrabble, but with numbers and operation symbols. To keep it simple, limit the tiles to add and subtract; or up the challenge by adding multiplication, division, or fractions!
  • Balderdash – a fun way to expand vocabulary. Each player hears an unfamiliar word and writes down a made-up definition for it. One player has the real definition, and the other team has to guess who is telling the truth. This game challenges students to use their knowledge of word origins and word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots) to make up plausible definitions, and to guess what makes sense.
  • Trivial Pursuit or TriBond for general knowledge-building – Trivial Pursuit Family Edition has a set of cards for adults and one for kids, so everyone has challenging questions to answer. TriBond cards each have 3 words or concepts on them, and the player has to identify how they are connected to each other. It is a great game for building flexible thinking.
  • Make your own Memory cards with sight words or math facts and their answers (or equivalent fractions, the possibilities are nearly endless). 
Have reading adventures
  • Try audio books for the car
  • Discover a new author or series
  • Make reading a special treat: Read in a tent, in a blanket fort, in a hammock, or in a canoe
  • Cook food from your favorite books
  • Join me for a Summer Reading Adventure online for 6 weeks this summer
Build routines
  • Instead of competing for attention with video games or TV, create a family habit of always sitting down for some learning at a specific part of the day. For some, after breakfast, before he distractions start, works best. Others reinvent the siesta as a quiet learning break mid-day. Maybe the youngest family members nap in the afternoon, and everyone else takes a study break.
Set an example
  • Sit down with your children and learn while they learn
  • Try Duolingo to brush up on your Spanish, commit to reading today’s newspaper cover to cover, or check something new out of the library.
Try technology
  • Khan Academy is free, and it offers lesson videos and practice for math. I find this is best for middle school and high school students, and less engaging for younger children
  • Doctor Genius is a free math practice option for younger children, beginning with the skill of counting to 3
  • No Red Ink lets students practice grammar skills in a fun engaging way, and gives them feedback and teaching in their areas of need
  • NewsELA provides free news articles, which can be adjusted to different reading levels. There are quizzes to check for understanding and a wide range of interesting topics to read about
What if your child finished the year with gaps or weaknesses?

All of these activities provide quality practice and enrichment to reduce the chance that the summer slide will affect your child. But what if you, or their teachers, think they aren’t quite ready to start next school year? What if they finished with skill gaps, or didn’t meet the school’s end-of-year learning benchmarks? Carefully designed teaching from a qualified tutor can make a big difference. Unlike the school year, when there are many demands on your time and your child’s, the summer provides an excellent opportunity to focus on one or two areas of need and make the most of learning time!

Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation to determine if one-to-one, online tutoring in reading and writing is a good fit for your child!

Keep your kids from falling behind in reading with some simple, fun, activities

The Transition to Middle School

From what I remember about middle school, it could have been the sequel to Lord of the Flies. Except I vaguely remember some adults being in the building.

Basically, I spent 90% of my time thinking about where to sit in the cafeteria, and whether it meant something that Matt closed his locker and walked away as soon as I got to mine, and whether I had enough hair spray in my bangs. I guess I spent the other 10% thinking about academics, but frankly, that part is a little fuzzy.

Is it any wonder that these people, who were very recently children who definitely had monsters in their closets and needed timeouts, struggle to meet their teachers’ expectations in middle school?

So much changes in those last couple of pre-teen years. Physically, hormonally, cognitively, and emotionally, no one comes out of middle school the way they went in. For better or for worse.

Add to all this personal stuff the constant pressure on teachers to push academics down, down, down to younger students, and vulnerable middle schoolers are dealing with more pressure and stress than ever before.

So how do we protect our middle schoolers?

First of all: be there. According to this piece in the New York Times, even teens who seem to hate their parents feel better and have better outcomes when their parents are available regularly. The author, Lisa Damour, calls them “potted plant parents.” They are moms and dads who are just there, fading into the background. A study connected this parental availability with lower rates of behavioral and emotional problems.

Promote healthy habits like eating breakfast and lunch and getting enough sleep. As middle schoolers mature and get more freedom, they sometimes make short-sighted choices that affect them negatively. They may stay up too late, skip meals, or choose junk foods that affect how they feel and how they learn. Try for a family meal most nights of the week. Research shows that family dinners lead to positive outcomes for health and learning, but if you’re not home at dinner time, maybe you could sit down for breakfast?

Another important way to prepare your child for middle school is through teaching mindfulness strategies. This is one of the hardest practices to sell to adults and kids in our busy world, but I believe one of the most important. A growing body of research shows mindfulness training and practice is helpful for improving students’ attention, emotional regulation and compassion for others, while decreasing their stress and anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive that slowing down in this way is going to help your child make their way in the fast-paced middle school world, but these skills help teens learn to direct and sustain their attention, calm themselves when they feel anxious or upset, and understand their emotional reactions to challenges.

Preparing for academic success

Beyond health and social-emotional strategies, kids need some concrete strategies for dealing with the academic challenges of middle school.

  1. Organize in advance – Follow the teachers’ school supply lists in the summer. If they don’t use a specific system for color coding, create one. Give each academic subject a color and buy a folder, notebooks, and maybe a binder in that color.
  2. Get a planner – Some schools provide them. If not, look for a school year planner that fits your student’s needs. Make sure it has enough room to write assignments.
  3. Create a homework space at home – It could be permanent – like a desk in a quiet space, or temporary – like a file bin or supply caddy you can put on the dining room table, then clear away at meal time.
  4. Create a weekly and daily routine – Often, teachers spend class time teaching students to fill out their planner or agenda book with class assignments. Support this and supplement it by sitting with your child over the weekend to look at the week ahead. Is it a busy week of practices and rehearsals? Is there a big project due next Monday? Every day after school, help your child to look at their planner and plan for tonight’s homework. Someday, they’ll do this on their own, but if you can find a moment to call them from work in the afternoon, or have them sit in the kitchen while you make dinner, you will build a habit that will pay off for years!
  5. Clean and organize periodically – Depending on the child, binders and folders tend to get cluttered and lose organization over time. Take an hour on a relaxed weekend to spread out everything, sort it, throw out the junk, and file away important completed work, like things they might need to study for an exam later this year. Some kids might need this once a month, while others need a weekly check in, and some can make it to the end of the academic term without making a mess.
  6. Give them responsibility – You are providing tools and support for homework, but at the end of the day, the grades are theirs. The transition to middle school can bring a steep learning curve for parents and kids. Be careful to set boundaries you are comfortable with so your child knows she has your support, but she also develops skills and independence to succeed on her own.

When to get expert help

The transition to middle school can be challenging for even the most capable and mature students. For many middle schoolers, good habits established during these years will make them available during the school day to learn what their teachers are teaching. The best case scenario is they will experience some challenges, and some moments of stress, but their strong foundational skills will serve them well.

For other students, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or weak basic skills might make it very difficult for them to succeed in class. If you and your child have tried some strategies, but school is still not going well, you might need to consult with other professionals. Talk to your pediatrician, a guidance counselor or special education teacher if you think an educational disability might be affecting your child’s progress. A tutor who is knowledgeable about middle school curriculum, study skills and executive function can also be a great help.

Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation today to see if tutoring is a good option for your child.

Middle schoolers need structure and support to meet the new challenges they encounter.
photo credit: Enokson <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/47823583@N03/8465390293">Comfortable Computing</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>

Question: Who should use audio books?

Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!

There is a perception that listening to an audiobook is “cheating,” (an issue I would say Daniel Willingham puts to rest in this post). However, for students who are below-grade-level decoders, audio books are  way to honor their age-appropriate (or better) listening comprehension skills and keep them engaged in challenging texts.

I often present it to students this way: We work together to improve your decoding skills. (Through Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction and word analysis, as well as self-monitoring techniques and strategies such as rereading and using DISSECT to identify the meaning of unknown words). But sometimes, the most important thing is focusing on the story or meaning of a text. Accurate decoding takes energy and time. I want you to save your energy to think deeply about what you read, and at those times, I would like you to save your decoding energy to use on comprehension. So here:

  1. Listen to me read the text.
  2. Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
  3. Listen to this published audio book
  4. Use your Bookshare or Learning Ally subscription

Once we remove the obstacle of decoding the words in a text, which is a complex process that requires cognitive energy, students are free to recall, analyze, argue, and synthesize, along with all the other higher-order thinking skills we are thrilled to see them use. Exposure to text at their listening comprehension level exposes students to vocabulary, concepts, and grammatical structures that they might not be able to access through independent decoding. Is it “cheating” to call on those higher-order thinking skills just because they can’t decode the words? I think not!

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.

8 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Reading Fluency

What is reading fluency and why does it matter?

Reading fluency can be defined as the ability to read accurately, with sufficient rate and prosody (that’s phrasing and expression) to understand what you have read. Schools often measure it with an assessment like AIMSWeb or DIBELS, and they may report it as a score for ORF (Oral Reading Fluency), PRF (Passage Reading Fluency) or WRF (Word Reading Fluency). Students are asked to read out loud from grade-level text for one minute, and the number of words they read correctly is reported. The district establishes (or adopts) benchmarks–expectations for how many words a student should be reading per minute in the fall, winter, and spring of each grade. Then teachers use different types of lessons to improve your child’s reading fluency.

Why all the fuss about reading fluency? Children who don’t read fluently:

  • Have trouble making sense of what they read
  • Have trouble finishing their work on time
  • Often dislike reading
  • Often feel worried or embarrassed about reading out loud.
  • Find reading exhausting!

So what can parents do to improve your child’s reading fluency?

Some of the best strategies for improving reading fluency work both in school and at home. Find something to read and get started!

Pick the right text – Although some experts think it helps to practice with harder texts, most researchers recommend using stories kids can read mostly correctly (90% of words) to practice fluency. Teachers often send home texts that kids have already read in class, and which can be great choices for extra practice at home.

  • Reread a text several times – This works great with short texts like poems or a couple paragraphs of a story. Have your child read it a few times, enough so that they can “work out the kinks” and recognize all the words, but not so much that they just memorize the words.
  • Be a reading fluency model – Read out loud to your child. You can either read them a story they aren’t able to read alone yet, or reread an old favorite. Hearing how you pronounce words, group words into phrases and change your tone of voice for question marks and exclamation points helps them to know what good reading sounds like. Hearing good reading builds vocabulary, which can improve your child’s reading fluency.
  • Take turns – When your child is reading, the “I read a page, you read a page” strategy can keep your child interested and motivated to keep reading. It also gives the same great modeling as reading a whole story to them. Even better, they will hear you read some of the hard words that come up more than once in the text, which helps them figure out how to pronounce them.
  • Give feedback – after your child reads a section, tell them what they did well, and give them a suggestion for something to try next time. For example, “I really like the way you went back and read the whole sentence after you stopped to sound out that word. Reading the whole sentence is something readers do to make sure everything makes sense. Next time, watch out for words that look alike. I noticed you mixed up of and for when you were reading.”
  • Find new audiences – Kids need to read, read, read to boost fluency. Have them read to siblings (big or little), pets, or stuffed animals. Can they read to a grandparent over the phone, or on Skype or FaceTime?
  • Give them the chance to perform! – Record a video of your child the first time they read a new story, and then again when they have practiced. Point out how practicing helped them read faster, more accurately, and with more expression. Have them practice a book so they can read the family bedtime story when they are ready.
  • Practice, practice, practice – Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. Have your child do a little bit of reading fluency practice every day. Even 10 minutes could really improve your child’s reading fluency over the course of a few weeks.