Preschool: Is there an app for that?

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

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

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

Skill-building activities for the family

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

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

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

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

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

When you need to use technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers

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

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

Messy stuff

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

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

Here are some ideas for messy fine motor play:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download my free infographic “Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Wait” and join my email list for more ideas and updates on my brand-new book 4 Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.

How to Take the Study Break Your Brain Needs

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

How do you know when you need a study break?

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

Why take a break when studying?

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

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

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

When do I need a study break?

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

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

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

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

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

What should I do on my study break?

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

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

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

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

How do I end a study break?

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

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

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

Get a free study schedule for your next unit test! Sign up for my mailing list to download this resource and get updates on new tools and strategies.



Organizing Google Drive for Back to School

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

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

Out With the Old

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

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

In With the New

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

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

Make it Pretty

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

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

Use it wisely

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

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

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

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

My book! It’s here!

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

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

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

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

So I wrote a book about it. 

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

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

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

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


How to Organize Your Middle Schooler for Back to School

I just did an informal survey of the back to school supply lists on the local middle schools I’m familiar with. I’m hoping the twitch in my eye goes away soon. Every year, teachers put together careful, extremely detailed lists of items their students need to succeed in the classroom. And every year, parents stand, baffled, in the middle of office supply stores, surrounded by folders, binders, notebooks and children who would rather be done shopping and enjoying their last days of summer. I hate to add another back to school supply shopping post to the stress, but if I can lend some purpose and order to the disconnected lists you’ve been staring at, I think I should!

As I looked over the supply lists for a few different public middle schools, it was clear that the teachers put a lot of thought into what they requested. Some teams specify the colors of binders or folders, others specify the thickness of binders or ask for “heavy duty” styles. But others just ask for more generic supplies, like “one-subject notebooks.” 

If your child is lucky enough to attend a school that already has a color-coded system in place, great! Head to Target and get yourself a coffee while you’re at it!

But if your child’s supply list doesn’t give you a clear idea of what the whole system will look like when it’s put together, hang out with me for a minute and let’s make a plan.

How many classes?

First, how many core academic classes will your child be taking? It’s usually English language arts, math, science, social studies, and maybe a foreign language. So pick 5 different colors to start with. Scroll to the end to download my free worksheet to list the colors for each class so you can keep it all straight while you’re shopping.

What tools fit best?

Second, what kind of stuff does your child need/use? For some students, one large binder with a divider tab and a folder for each class works. For others, a separate 3-ring binder (durable or heavy duty) for each class is better. Then decide on either loose leaf paper for taking notes or wire-bound notebooks for each class. 

Know thy child

Third, how detail-oriented is your child? A fussy child with time on their hands might reinforce their notebook pages with those goofy little circle stickers. (That would have been me.) A less fussy child might toss the papers in and not care if the rings get ripped. They make reinforced looseleaf paper if you want to spend a little more to have the pages stay in the notebook. 

Hit the stores

Think quality if you don’t want to replace all this stuff (at full price) by Halloween. I like the dull, cheap, pocket folders better the ones that are shiny outside. They don’t seem to rip as easily. The plastic ones are durable, but the papers slide right out! Name-brand pencils and pens are one place I’m willing to spend a dollar or two more. I think the wirebound notebooks are all the same, but they do make some with plastic covers instead of paper, and they seem to last longer.

Now is also the time to buy an extra set of folders and an extra set of one-subject notebooks. If your child doesn’t use up (or lose!) the ones they start the year with, you can bet that the colors will be the same next year and you’ll have a head start!

But what about the cute stuff?

Some kids (and parents) have a terrible time passing up all the adorable printed folders and binders and notebooks that are available this time of year. If you’re willing to buy them for your child, maybe they can use them for a journal, crafts, homework folder, or an oddball class like band or gym where the color won’t be as big a deal. 

You can also add a fun accessory like stickers, a pencil case, duct tape, or washi tape so your child can personalize his or her new stuff.

I know the back to school shopping lists drive parents crazy. But having the right tools really does make your child’s day go more smoothly and help them stay organized when they go back to school!

For more ideas about back to school organization, check out these posts on color-coding a binder system, using Google Calendar as a homework planner, and setting up a homework space at home.

Need even more? Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to see how online tutoring can help your child stay on track this school year!



Get Your Preschooler to be More Independent in the Morning

In the years before I had kids, I knew I wasn’t ready to be a parent because I could barely get myself clean, fed, and out the door to work. Then I had a little kid, and “fed” took a backseat and I learned to take my granola bar to go. Now I have two young children and we are gradually building family routines that help my preschooler to be independent and keep me and my husband from tripping over each other as we try to get ready. 

So how do you get your preschooler to follow a schedule or routine? It’s not an easy process but I would argue it’s much easier to teach your child to follow a routine independently now than it will be when he’s a teenager and you want him to meet you at the car for a ride to the middle school. Start now and start small so your child’s skills and confidence grow as she grows.

Decide what needs to be done

The first and most important step to getting your child to follow a routine is to be clear in your own mind (and be clear with any other adults who are in the mix) what that routine will be. If Dad has one set of rules for getting ready for bed and Mom has another, your child will end up confused and waiting for cues from the adult on duty. 

Write down the routine

Decide on the key steps and write them down in child-friendly words. Use pictures where you can so your pre-reader can understand it on his own. Start with just one part of the day, either getting ready in the morning or getting ready for bed. Once your child learns to follow the list, you can add any other routines you need. My dining room wall currently has lists for morning and evening and, at my son’s request, after school. 

Start your list with things your child already knows how to do. Mine was:

  • Put your bowl in the sink
  • Put your PJ’s in the laundry
  • Put on your clothes
  • Put on socks and shoes
  • Get your backpack and jacket

Don’t try to teach them how to do something at the same time that you make them independently responsible for it. Teach them how to pour their own cereal with as much support as they need and add it to the checklist when they can do it independently every time (without leaving a minefield of Cheerios on your kitchen floor). 

If mornings are stressful and crazy, you might want to start with your evening routine. Likewise, if one parent works late and the other can just barely get the kids fed and stuffed into their beds in time, don’t start there. Teaching your child to follow a routine more independently will take work and time and, above all, patience from the adults, so pick a routine you feel like you can give her time to learn.

Introduce the expectations

When you have a grand unveiling of the new routine checklist, make it the most exciting thing you ever hung on the wall. I put ours in plastic page protectors and started with a dry erase marker so my son could check things off as he finished them. We eventually stopped using the marker because it was one more thing to find in the morning, and because he was able to keep track of what step he was on without checking it off. 

My introduction went something like this, “Hey, Goose? I have something cool to show you! I was thinking about all the things you do by yourself in the morning and I made a list. Check it out! You are doing each of these things all on your own, but I noticed you need me or Dad to remind you when it’s time to do them. So I want to try something new. Now, instead of me reminding you that it’s time to get dressed, you’re going to check your list every day after breakfast and see what you have to do. You are going to be so independent now that you’re three!”

At first, you may want to use some kind of small reward if your child finishes all the steps without prompting. We started in the fall, so we must have used small bits of Halloween candy when my son finished the list. My husband is the one who did the daycare drop-offs at that point, so I honestly don’t remember. If you do decide to give a reward, make sure you’re clear about what it takes to get it. Will your child get it for finishing all the steps? For finishing all the steps with no reminders? What if you have to say, “Go check your list” 5 times? 10 times? Start with something manageable for your child so the reward isn’t out of reach, but make sure you’re not spending all your time reminding them and having them think they are independent.

Start practicing

At first, getting your child to follow a checklist or routine takes longer than just talking them through the whole thing. Because now, instead of saying, “Put your bowl in the sink” and having them head for the kitchen, you have to say, “What’s next? Go check your list,” and wait while they go from the table to the wall to the table to take that bowl to the sink, then go back to the list to find out what comes next. 

For a while, I had to take my super-distracted preschooler by the hand and walk him over to the list every time he got interested in a toy or a shoe or a stray piece of lint. I would turn him to face the list, point to it, and he would say, “OH! Yeah! Pants!” 

Try to use as few verbal prompts as possible as your child learns this process. Remember, you are trying to replace the sound of your voice with the beautiful checklist you created. Try modeling what you want them to do (stand in front of the checklist and look pointedly at their cereal bowl), pointing to the checklist, or handing them the list to get them to read from it. 

Expect more

Over a few weeks, if you are consistent, your child will become more and more independent. You might find that your checklist goes through a few different drafts if your child needs extra reminders for a certain step or puts her bowl in the sink, but never her spoon. 

Once your child masters this checklist, you can think about adding one for another part of the day. You can also use the same idea for jobs that aren’t daily, like taking the recycling out to the curb or picking up toys in the living room. Break it into steps, create visuals, and make it motivating. Kids are often so proud that they can do it on their own that they don’t need a reward, beyond your high five and their own sense of accomplishment. 

So what can your preschooler start doing for herself? What do your children already do on their own?

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When Should Your Child Start Doing Chores?

Pinterest is chock full of lists and infographics and opinions about the right age to give kids chores. Chatting with groups of parents, I’ve realized that chores are an issue that is divisive. There is a huge range of opinions about what are age-appropriate chores. So when should a child start doing chores? I think the answer is “as soon as possible.” I’ll tell you why.

I’ve written before about ways to help children develop executive functioning skills. These are skills that help children “execute” all kinds of tasks, from getting ready for school on time to applying to college. These skills develop over time, even into adulthood, but kids who don’t develop them at the same time as their peers can be at a big disadvantage when it comes to school.

Chores are one way to help children develop their executive functioning skills, as well as improving their confidence, problem-solving and motor skills. Chores can be a way to spend valuable time with your kids. And finally, having your kids do chores means the family gets more done faster! (Eventually). 

If your goal is to have your child building all these skills as early as they can, you will start to see chores everywhere you look. Here is how my kids started out and some ideas I have for turning over more responsibility as they grow.

One to two years

Yes, at 16 months, my daughter is starting to help out. She loves it because she’s interacting with us and we cheer and thank her. Some of her skills are:

  • Bring me the ___ (this works for socks and toys, of course, but it also works for having her hand me items from the laundry basket so I can fold them)
  • Put the ___ in the ___ (clothes in the laundry hamper, toy in the toy box, napkin in the trash)
  • She will happily accept a wipe or a tissue but doesn’t really have the hang of wiping her hands or a surface. 

A little closer to two, my son would unwrap the bars of soap when we bought a bulk pack of them. It took practice to put soap in one basket and wrappers in the trash, but that’s what makes it good for building executive functions.

Probably by the time he turned two, he was carrying his empty plate to the kitchen, although I took anything messy for him. 

By two, he was also wiping his table with a water spray bottle and a little cloth. He loved this job the most because of the spraying of water. It took a long time to refine it so it didn’t make a bigger mess than it cleaned up, but I think it’s worth it because using the sprayer builds hand strength and now I just have to say, “Clean the table first,” and at 4 he gets the mild cleaner, sprays down the surface, wipes the table and puts the cloth in the laundry and the spray in the cabinet. The time we invested between two and four has really paid off.

Two to three years

By the age of 3, my son had a lot of responsibilities. They were often more trouble than they were worth because things take him longer and he would often get distracted. Sometimes, there just wasn’t time for him to do things for himself, especially on weeknights. But I tried to make up for it on weekends and in the summer. Here are some jobs he had before he was 3:

  • Clearing his place after dinner, scraping his plate into the trash and stacking it by the sink. (I’d say in the dishwasher, but let’s be real – the dishwasher doesn’t get emptied and reloaded until long after he’s in bed.)
  • Putting dirty clothes in the laundry (thoroughly and on his own, without reminders)
  • Carrying a pile of t-shirts upstairs and putting them in the drawer, with supervision
  • Picking up his toys one category at a time (put all the food in the play kitchen, put all the soft toys in the hammock)
  • Getting dressed (I limited his wardrobe to gray and black pants and a bunch of shirts that all matched so he was guaranteed success)
  • Carrying and unpacking his own backpack after daycare
  • Washing windows with his trusty water spray bottle (this doesn’t actually accomplish anything, but he loved it!)
  • Making a peanut butter sandwich while I helped with things like jar lids and spreading
  • Measuring ingredients into the rice cooker, as long as I stood by to monitor

Three to four years

In the last year, my son has increased independence with the chores he has been doing for a long time, and we’ve started doing visual checklists so he does not need as many reminders to do the things he is responsible for every day. We’ve also added some new jobs:

  • Folding laundry – first washcloths, then moving on to his own underwear, then shorts and shirts, and larger towels
  • Putting away all his laundry
  • Stripping his bed and bringing his sheets down for washing
  • Making a sandwich if I just take out the jars and set up the step stool
  • Washing fruit or vegetables before he eats them
  • Organizing his bookshelf or art drawers (he still needs verbal coaching to point the books in the right direction)
  • Carrying out some of the trash and recycling on trash day
  • Bringing in the empty recycling bin in the afternoon
  • Emptying the silverware basket in the dishwasher
  • Sweeping specific messes, like spilled cereal (I got a broom from the dollar store and cut the handle down so he’s not knocking things down with it)

Please don’t think I’m raising perfect robot children who do all these things happily. There are tears sometimes and there is foot-dragging and there are endless reminders on some days. I frame all these jobs as things that have to get done so we can go more places and have more fun together. Sometimes I do play up the drama a little. “I know, I would love to go to the park this afternoon, but unfortunately, I have soooooo much laundry to fold I won’t be able to take you…unless I get some help….” 

I also give lots of choices. “I’m going to need some help getting ready for dinner. Would you rather go pick peas in the garden or wipe the dining room table?” And if he spends 20 minutes running around the front yard, great, as long as he comes back with the beans! I’m looking forward to adding some chores in the next few years, as the kids get older. Here’s my wishlist:

  • Emptying the whole dishwasher (when they are tall enough)
  • Bringing in groceries from the car and unpacking them
  • Folding more laundry (I don’t know why, but I hate folding laundry)
  • Food prep – making salad, washing and cutting more fruits, mixing, measuring
  • Packing lunches – I’ll make the single serving containers of snacks and side dishes and they will pick a balanced meal from the choices available

In the end, I want my children to learn a few things. One, this house doesn’t run itself. My husband and I work hard to feed everyone, clothe them, and keep the house clean. Each member of the family is part of that system and we do these things for each other because that’s what it means to be in a family. 

Two, I want them to learn how to solve problems and work through jobs more and more independently. Today, my four-and-a-half year old made his peanut butter and fluff sandwich and set it down on the table before realizing he hadn’t cut it. He complained loudly because he had used the last two knives in the drawer to spread the peanut butter and the fluff (“Because I didn’t want them to get mixed together.” Problem-solving!) and didn’t have one to cut the sandwich because he put them both in the sink. I was sympathetic but I didn’t get up from my own lunch or offer a solution. He considered a couple of options: a fork, a spoon. I did have to prompt him to think about where else there could be knives (in the clean dishwasher) but he went through a lot of steps before I had to help him. 

I joke that I want my kids to grow up to be employable and marriageable but really, what would be so bad about that? Employable = problem-solving, skilled, nice to be around. Marriageable = nice to be around and a responsible roommate. Sure, that’s too simplistic but I think it’s a great start. And I’m starting with chores.  

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How to Get Your Kids to Read This Summer

“Go play.” 

“Stop poking your brother.”

“I just fed you!”

“Where are your shoes?”

“Go read a book. A book. Yes, a book!”

Summer is officially underway. Have you checked the calendar yet to see when school starts again?

Kids seem to fall into two groups when it comes to reading. There are those that are begging to go to the library again to trade their huge pile of books for another. And then there are those who need to be urged, inspired, begged or forced to read. There are so many other things a child can do with a summer day and for many, reading falls pretty low on that list. 

Does it even matter if your kids read in the summer?

It sure does. You may have heard of the summer slide. The summer slide is the tendency for kids to lose skills (up to a month’s worth of learning!) over the summer. While the risk is greater in math, some students also lose reading skills, especially kids who struggle. In my experience as a teacher and tutor, what school-age children tend to lose is reading stamina and the ability to think through a question or problem. Getting their brains running from a standing start in the first week of school can be hard for all of us.

Some schools will assign specific summer reading and expect children (usually middle school or older) to take a test or discuss the book when they get back. Obviously, these assignments impact your child’s grades and have the potential to get their year off to a rough start if they don’t read the book or read it well. Other schools set a more general expectation for reading and might give you suggested book lists for your child’s grade. 

How do you get your kids to read in the summer? 

So once you decide it’s important, how do you get your kids to sit down with books and make the magic happen? Routines, Reminders, Rewards and Requirements. There are other ways, but I couldn’t think of any others that start with R, so here we go:

Routines

Pick a part of the day and make it a routine that everyone takes out a book and reads at this time. (No fair playing on your own phone while they do this. If you can’t sit down and read, take yourself to another room or they will call you on it.) For some families, first thing in the morning works, while others take a siesta after lunch for reading and relaxation. Bedtime is a nice time to read, too, but any part of the day that you can make consistent for your family this summer will do the trick! Shoot for 20-30 minutes, depending on the age of your kids, but if that’s hard, start with 10 minutes and work your way up. Play quiet instrumental music, dim the lights, or go to the room with the coolest air conditioning if it helps your kids get comfy.

Reminders

I know. You’ve been reminding your kids to read, and you’re still reading this post looking for better ideas! Other ways to remind/inspire your kids to read are: make the books available and appealing. Think about the way the book store displays best sellers. Stand them up in the kitchen next to the snacks or feature them prominently on the coffee table. Keep a stack of picture books in the car or in the bathroom, wherever your kids seem to spend all their time. 

Rewards

There’s some research that shows that rewarding kids for spending time reading can actually backfire, so tread lightly with this one. One thing that has been proven effective is rewarding kids for reading by getting them more books. This can be awesome if your child gets into a series and you can reward them by picking up the next one at your bookstore or library. My public library has moved their summer reading club online. My four-year-old doesn’t totally get it, but I think it’s great for school age kids. We type in the number of minutes he read, and we can list his books. He earns digital badges for reaching each goal for minutes of reading. This program also has other non-reading tasks that match the summer’s theme. For example, this year’s theme is space, so one task was naming all 8 planets. (I can’t help it. I keep typing 9. Poor Pluto!) 

And I don’t care what the research says. If you need to make lemonade when you finish The Lemonade War or go out for butterbeer when you finish a Harry Potter book, by all means, celebrate reading! (Where does one go for butterbeer, anyway?)

Requirements

I saved this one for last because it’s my least favorite way to get kids reading. But some kids are never going to get the chance to fall in love with a book because they will never open one on their own! For your reluctant and resistant readers, you might need to make reading a “must-do” before they go out to play or get screen time. I know some parents don’t give the kids the wifi password until they’ve finished their chores for the day. 

It doesn’t have to be books

The cool thing about summer reading is you do not have to limit yourself to books. Of course, that’s true all year, but it might feel more true in the summer when there’s no reading log for the teacher or homework. It counts as reading if your child reads travel guides for your summer vacation, reads stats and game recaps for their favorite baseball team, or even reads magazines about their favorite video game or reality TV star. 

You might get your kids involved in reading recipes to bake a cake or reading directions to put together a new toy. My son is starting to read and is fascinated by cereal boxes and whatever comes in the mail. That won’t be enough to keep your sixth grader’s brain active all summer, but my point is find those moments for reading wherever you can!

One student I tutored had a summer “reading” assignment to listen to a podcast. For older children who are really focused on story and comprehension, podcasts and audiobooks still “count” as reading. There are some great podcasts for younger children, too, like Shabam! and Eleanor Amplified, but they don’t give the same eyes-on-the-page practice that your beginning reader needs to become fluent. They are still great for car rides and quiet time.

Read with them

Your kids are not too old to be read to. Oh, I don’t know how old your kids are? Doesn’t matter. I just wrote a whole post on reading out loud to kids, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I think reading aloud is a totally underappreciated way to connect with your kids and bring them a love of stories. 

And if your teenager absolutely will not sit still while you break out the Shel Silverstein poems, try reading what they are reading. Let them recommend a book to you and read it, even if it’s incredibly lame. I think taking book recommendations from your kid can be especially challenging if your child has interests totally unlike yours. You might have to read about war battles or awkward middle school crushes or robots or proper English ladies pining for a husband. You might not love it. But how can you expect your kids to take your book recommedations seroiusly if you don’t read the books they recommend? You will have something new to talk to your child about and you might learn something important about the way they view the world. 

Make it a game

I was thinking about all my memories of reading in the summer. As a teenager, I loved pulling a chair out onto the deck and putting my feet up on the railing. I read A Tale of Two Cities on a hill in the shade in a park near my house. I couldn’t read in the car, but I read everywhere else! I remember getting wet thumbprints on the book pages by the pool and reading in the evening, freshly showered, in front of the fan. 

I made a summer bingo board to try to inspire kids to find some of those same reading moments that I loved so much. Put in your email address below and I’ll send it to you, too. I’ll send you some updates, too.

So what are your favorite tips and tricks for getting your kids reading in the summer?

Big feelings in small bodies – Why adults saying sad when they mean angry is my pet peeve

I started my teaching career in a classroom with students with autism spectrum disorders and/or intellectual disabilities. They were in middle school when I had them but they were the sort of kids whose parents often knew from birth that they were going to need extra help. Many had been in public school special education since their third birthdays and they had definitely learned some things that I don’t think we ever planned to teach them. One of the hardest things to change for these kids was the idea that when they behaved in a way that negatively impacted other people, their peers and the adults in their lives felt “sad.” 

It’s not that those kids never behaved in a way that made me feel sad. Sometimes they broke my heart because it was clear that they were doing their best and still struggling, or they wore their hearts on their sleeves in a way that was so much more real than what adults express. 

But when a seventh grader is goofing around and steps on my foot out of carelessness, I don’t feel sad. I feel annoyed! And it’s so much harder to help kids problem-solve and figure out how to exist in a world full of people when all they have heard is that their behavior makes people feel “sad.” 

I know how it happens. Before I worked in public school, I worked in early intervention and visited kids in their homes and preschools. When a 2-year-old with a language delay hits a peer, you tell them hitting makes their friends feel sad. Sad is simple and non-threatening and you can use it for anything. “Mommy feels sad when you yell and wake your sister up.” “Nana feels sad when you say her spaghetti is gross.” “You aren’t following safety rules crossing the street and that makes me sad.” Manipulative? A little. But many kids don’t want the people they like to be sad, so they understand that and they can work to change their behavior. 

But eventually, maybe sooner than we think, those little people (with or without disabilities) become bigger people, and they need an emotional vocabulary to deal with their own feelings and respond to the feelings of others. Toddlers hit when they are sad, or angry, or overwhelmed, or sometimes excited. They might be tired or hungry or just plain ticked off at you. And as long as there’s that gap between big feelings and words to name them, kids continue to act out in ways that don’t help them and are often not socially acceptable. 

One way to help your preschooler be emotionally literate and ready for school is to help him or her name those feelings and start to figure out what to do about them. 

Name that feeling

Sometimes preschoolers are overwhelmed by such big feelings that they can’t stop and name them and think about them. I mean, have you ever raged at the poor teenager who makes your coffee at the drive-thru or snapped at your spouse and realized after the fact that you had no idea why? We can usually think back and realize that we had a lousy night’s sleep or that we are nervous about an upcoming meeting, but preschoolers have a much harder time thinking about the past and the future, so all that cause-and-effect stuff is a mystery to them.

Before they can learn to deal effectively with emotions, they need to name them. They can practice that through play. Act out: What does your face look like when you’re angry? Let’s pretend the dolls are excited to go to the park! How do you feel when you have to go upstairs and it’s dark? Show me. There are many different emotions we can name and show, but for preschoolers, I think the most useful ones are: happy/content/calm, sad, scared/worried, angry and excited. They might find it easier to recognize these in book characters (because their faces don’t move) or loved ones before they can recognize them in themselves or in other kids. 

Some great books for talking about emotions with preschoolers are:

  • When Sophie Gets Angry –  Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague
  • Feelings by Aliki
  • Wemberley Worried by Kevin Henkes
  • The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
  • Glad Monster Sad Monster by Anne Miranda and Ed Emberley

As your child is beginning this process, they might need you to help them recognize and name their feelings. Before you jump in and assume you understand, it’s best to do some detective work. It might seem like your child is just grumpy when it’s time to go to camp, but if you ask a few questions, you might find that she’s really nervous because she will be meeting new counselors or angry because she thinks you’ll be having fun without her while she’s gone. 

You can tread lightly by saying things like, “You keep yelling and saying you don’t want to go to camp. Sometimes people yell because they’re angry. Are you angry?” You might have to play a little bit of 20 Questions but hopefully you can get to the bottom of your child’s big reaction and offer them the right kind of help.

Once your preschooler can name their big feelings, it is a lot easier for them to figure out what they need to handle the feeling and/or change the situation. There are so many different strategies that can help kids, from breathing techniques to calming boxes to distraction to drawing. What’s important is that your child should have a toolkit of maybe 3 or 4 strategies that work for them. Practice them when things are calm. Have your child coach you to use a strategy when you get stuck in traffic or stub your toe. Keep the materials or picture reminders nearby so they are easy to grab when they are needed. 

After we worked through sad, happy, and angry with my son, the next feeling he asked to learn about was worried. Until we started really talking about feelings when he was four, I had no idea that worry was such a big part of his life. Now, at four and a half, he is a bit better about expressing his worry or disappointment, and it is so helpful to understand why he is upset, instead of guessing that he’s tired or feeling shy. He might still respond with a loud squeal when he thinks he might run out of time to go somewhere fun or do something he wants, but his long, loud, sweaty meltdowns are largely a thing of the past. 

And that’s why teaching children to name their emotions, and being honest with them about your own emotions, can be so valuable. It helps them feel more in control and makes them more able to face challenges and rebound from setbacks. And all this emotion stuff lays the groundwork for all their other accomplishments – in school, in sports, in relationships, everywhere.

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