How do I help my child write an essay?

In a perfect world, students build their writing skills bit by bit over time, writing good sentences, then good paragraphs, and then combining those paragraphs into an essay. Kids can do this with support starting around third grade but it’s a project that might take weeks in class. 

Unfortunately, teachers don’t always build in all these steps, or not all students in the class are ready to be independent at the same time. Either way, the result is an essay that your child has to write on their own and they have no idea where to start! 

Break it Down, Build it Up

Chunk the assignment

Some teachers think about turning their assignments into a step-by-step checklist, while others write a dense paragraph with all the detailed directions buried inside. If your child gets an assignment that seems like a pile of complex instructions, the first step is to help them break it down and decide where to start.

Turn the teachers directions into a checklist. If the directions for the essay say, “Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence, supporting details, and uses transition words,” turn that into a checklist:

  • Body Paragraph
    • Topic Sentence
    • Supporting Detail 1
    • Supporting Detail 2
    • Supporting Detail 3
    • Transition words

No matter how obvious a detail might seem to you as an adult, like “Make sure your name is on the first page.” or “Number your pages,” include those on your child’s checklist. Those details easily get lost in the shuffle of trying to actually write the content of the paper.

Develop a Plan

Even if your child is full of ideas and could discuss a topic all day, the idea of writing it down in a formal essay can be overwhelming. Start by having your child write down what they know. Everyone has personal preferences for this brainstorming process. Here are some options:

  • Write a formal outline, listing the topic for each paragraph and any known details. (I haaaated this as a student and used to write my paper early just so I could go back and write the outline after and turn it in.)
  • Write each idea on a sticky note or index card so they can be shuffled and grouped differently as the plan develops.
  • Draw a mindmap or web, with the main idea in the center and details in branches around it. You can use a tool like Mindmup to make a digital mindmap or draw one on big paper.

Download my Revision and Editing Checklists to help your child polish their paper.


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Write a draft

I grew up writing drafts on paper (dingy manila paper in elementary school and notebook paper in middle and high school) and having to turn in and edit a draft to earn the opportunity to write a typed final draft. While there are arguments on the subject of handwriting vs typing essays, I can’t justify asking kids to spend their time writing and rewriting an essay when the time could be better spent strengthening their ideas!

I recommend having kids start to organize their notes right on the computer screen. It’s so easy to cut and paste sentences and even whole paragraphs that, as long as we keep in mind that this a draft and it will change, putting first drafts on the screen can work great!

Edit and Revise

Editing and Revising are two different, but related, processes. Revise has 2 parts re (again) and vise (look at/see). So to revise a piece of writing is to look at it again and make meaningful changes. This can include adding missing ideas, using more precise and descriptive vocabulary, or rearranging sentences or paragraphs so they are in a logical order. Many students struggle with this process because they think, “I already wrote this. There’s nothing more to say.” It helps to give them choices or a specific action they can take. For example, “This sentence is too short. You could add the word because at the end and explain more about why this event happened.”

Editing is more about the process of correcting errors in the writing. Like many teachers, I use the acronym COPS to remind writers what to look for when they edit. Grab my Editing and Revising checklist for more detailed steps.

  • Capitalization
  • Organization (this includes how the text looks on the page: fonts, sizes, line breaks, indenting, etc.)
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

What’s the point of the assignment?

Remember that your child’s teacher assigns an essay for a reason. Your child may be writing it at home because the teacher believes they can do it independently and show their sklls. The teacher may want to assess their knowledge of some content or build their reading stamina. 

So as much as you want to reduce your child’s frustration or make the essay-writing process easier, make sure your role is to facilitate, not to do the work. Make sure the words on the page, and any final decisions about revisions or editing, belong to your child. You can remove barriers, like unclear directions or not being able to find a starting point, but you have to let them struggle sometimes so they can grow as writers.

How much should my child be writing?

As a parent, trying to figure out if your child is meeting grade-level standards at school is a little like looking through a peephole. You get a tiny, distorted picture of progress from the work your child brings home, paired with grades and feedback from the teacher. But how do you know what “good” writing looks like in, say, third grade?

Signs your child is struggling with writing

Handwriting, Spelling and Mechanics – Oh my!

Messy handwriting – There seems to be this bell-shaped curve with handwriting. Early writers are learning to form the letters. They come out backwards, all different sizes, wobbly and not on the lines. Around the end of first grade, many students hit their groove. They have fully learned letter formation and have developed firm habits about how they write (for better or for worse!) Later, many stop being as careful with their daily handwriting and, while they may be able to write neatly for forms and Christmas cards, their grocery lists are a scrawl that is readable only to them. If your child is young, make sure they have appropriate lined paper, short pencils (not fat ones!) and opportunities for practice and feedback. If they are older and handwriting continues to be a barrier, consider using speech-to-text or typing to help them get their ideas out.

Indecipherable spelling – Early writers use what’s often called “invented spelling.” They go from scribbling random shapes to mixing in some real letters to beginning to represent the sounds in words, like “gmu” for grandma. In kindergarten and first grade, students are encouraged to “write what they hear” but they should be held accountable for including any spelling rules or patterns they have been taught. If your child isn’t writing letters that match the sounds in the word by first grade, or if they continue to use phonetic spelling into third grade (such as misspellings like sed and wuz for common words like “said” and “was,”) they may need some help in writing.

Incomplete thoughts – You may feel like you need a secret decoder ring to read children’s writing sometimes. If your child’s writing is vague, “We went there after the other time…” or if they never pause to end a sentence, “We had popcorn and we saw the previews and the movie came on but it was too loud and we watched the robots and we got pizza that was my favorite part,” they may need some explicit instruction in choosing descriptive words or identifying a complete thought/sentence.

Why there’s no easy answer

Whether a child’s writing is deemed “good” depends completely on the situation. Based on my experience in public schools, there seems to be much less consistency and money invested in writing curriculum than there are in math and English materials and planning. As a result, writing instruction in different schools, or even in neighboring classrooms, can be all over the map. 

Even looking at state learning standards can make the issue cloudier instead of more clear. The Common Core Standards don’t say how long a piece of writing should be in any particular grade. It gives broader goals that, while important and true, don’t give us enough information to evaluate our children and see if they are on track. 

For example, a fourth grader should “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” Cool. But within that, there’s a huge difference between “Koalas are the best animals because they are furry and smell like eucalyptus,” and “The bird in Horton Hatches a Who treated Horton unfairly because she left him to sit on her eggs while she went on vacation.” They both have opinions, reasons, and information, but one shows knowledge about koalas (I made up that eucalyptus thing, but I’m using my imagination here) and the other shows understanding about character relationships and connections to a book. 

How to help child with spelling
Students writing at a table in a classroom

Some schools or individual teachers use rubrics to take some of the guesswork out of evaluating writing. A rubric is a grid that specifies the expected parts of a piece of work and gives a number of points for each item. Sometimes, a rubric can serve as a checklist for completing the assignment:

  • The cover page should have the title, author’s name, and date.

Other times, a rubric can be almost as vague as the Common Core Standards. What is “adequate support,” anyway?

Would an editing checklist help? Download our free writing checklists by signing up right here!


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OK, but really, how long should the writing be?

For what it’s worth (I unfortunately don’t have any power over schools’ curriculum), here are some general benchmarks I like to see students meet. When I see these things, I am pretty comfortable that they are on their way to becoming competent writers.

By the end of Kindergarten: 

  • Form all 26 letters (some reversed b/d/p/q m/w g/q is still developmentally very appropriate at this stage)
  • Write words phonetically by sounding them out or spell them correctly by using resources (for example, looking at the school lunch calendar to spell the word school)
  • Produce simple sentences. Many (maybe most) kindergarten graduates can write a sentence of 4-8 words themselves. Others are still using an adult scribe to capture their whole thought before they forget. It won’t be spelled correctly, but it should be a complete thought and most of the words should be there.
  • Express themselves verbally in complete thoughts, given a model. So if you say, “I think we should have spaghetti for dinner because it’s delicious. What do you think?” they can say, “I think we should get pizza because it’s fast.” 

By the end of first grade:

  • Write a series of 3-6 sentences about a single topic. They may begin to have a main idea/topic sentence, like “I’m going to tell you about my dog.” The writing might be repetitive: She has fur. She loves me. She likes walks.
  • Spell words in a way that makes sense, even if they pick the wrong option for some sounds, like writing trane for train

By the end of third grade:

  • Here’s where things start to vary more, both in school expectations and individual development. Sometime between the beginning of second grade and the end of third, children should learn to write a paragraph with a topic sentence and an appropriate number of details. 
  • In a narrative/story, they should have a clear beginning (where a character has a problem), middle, and end (where the problem is solved.) 
  • Most of their writing is often based on personal experience or general knowledge.

By the end of elementary school:

  • Write a paragraph that refers to specific facts from something they have learned and comments on those facts. 
  • Write a narrative that is several paragraphs long and talks about characters’ feelings and motivations. Children should be using conventions like quotation marks and punctuation to make their story clear.

Middle School: 

  • In middle school, students should be writing more and more about what they are learning in class. 
  • They should understand at least 3 kinds of writing (narrative, persuasive and expository) and be able to identify differences between the types.
  • Before high school, students should be able to string together at least 3 good paragraphs, with specific details and quotes from text they ahve read, into a coherent essay. They might need guidance to do this, with graphic organizers or sample papers to get them going.
  • Understand that they are writing for reader and that there are things writers do – like explaining their thoughts in detail – that we might not do in a spoken conversation.

High school:

  • Write a paper of 3-8 pages, with structure and guidance from a teacher.
  • Use specific evidence quoted from multiple sources to support their points in writing.
  • Use “writerly” academic language, including words like however, meanwhile, and on the other hand to show the relationship between their ideas.
  • Understand themselves as writers and use their knowledge to plan their writing process. For example, do they prefer to write a detailed outline or just start with a draft? What tools do they need to organize their notes or to keep their draft on track? How long does it take them to write a page?

But what if they aren’t?

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Especially in a world of texts and emails, being able to write your message effectively can make an enormous difference. 

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Click To Tweet

While every child’s development as a writer will vary, and my list above is only a rough guideline, children also sometimes need more than they are getting in the classroom. Without a strong writing curriculum, many teachers give students “inspiration” and “time to write,” which may not be enough structure for a child who just plain doesn’t know how to write. Other students need direct teaching about spelling or building sentences in order to do it successfully. If you have concerns about your child’s writing progress, or if they are avoiding writing or melting down, ask their teacher about writing expectations for the year. 

If your child is struggling with writing at school, whether it’s expressing themselves completely or spelling so others understand them, we can help! Contact us for a consultation and no-cost demo lesson today.

How much should my child be writing?
Writing expectations change a lot as your child moves through school. How do you know if they are meeting the expectations for their class?

Creating Space and Time for Homework

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

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

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

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

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

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

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

Readiness

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

Close Supervision

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

Minimize distractions

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

Tools

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

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

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

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

 

Grades 2-5

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

Prepare to work

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

Increasing Independence

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

Managing Distractions

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

Having the Right Tools

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

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

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

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

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

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

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

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

Internet Access

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

Accountability with Independence

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

Help to Plan

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

Someone to Manage the Schedule

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

A Place To Work

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

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

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

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

Changing Assignments

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

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

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

Keeping Them Organized

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

Finding Time for Sleep

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

The Pay-Off

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

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

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!

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

 

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?

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>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Your New Planner

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

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

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

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

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