Monday, March 8, 2010

Down and Dirty Fun for Kids

This week's Kaboose newsletter lists a bunch of things children can do to have some filthy fun in the dirt. I wonder if the author of that article knows that kids' fine motor coordination for writing improves when they plant seeds or make mud pies.

As a family, we did our fair share of planting veggies and herbs in the backyard, but the most fun my girls had in the dirt came when my older daughter, then age 5, gave my younger daughter, age 2, a mud bath in a large stainless steel bowl.

They pretended our youngest was the Mud Queen, and both of them ended up completely covered with brown ooze by the time they were finished. An outside shower in the grass with the help of the garden hose rinsed off a fair bit of the goo, but only warm baths with shampoo and conditioner could get them back to normal. They had so much fun that "Mud Queen" became one of their favorite summertime games. A friend once asked why I allowed the girls to make such a mess of themselves.

I replied, "I'm going to give them a bath before bedtime anyway. Why not?"

My daughters invented the most amazing stories during their muddy adventures. On occasion, they also dug huge holes on the other side of the hill in our yard, filled them with water, and called them mud springs. The backyard became a whole new world of magic and intrigue with good and bad guys and problems to solve.

Today both girls are amazing writers in their ladder high school years. Who knew these grimy games would contribute to an ability to write engaging stories and essays to absorb even the most reluctant readers?

The moral of the story: Good things come out of some of the biggest messes.

If you have a messy kid story to share, we'd love to see it!!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Do Your State's Education Standards Measure Up?

All kinds of reports mention how states rank in test scores, education standards, blah, blah, blah. I wonder how many people realize the kids are taking tests particular to a given state. In some states, scores earned by students attending special education classes and kids still learning English are averaged in with the rest. Other states hold those scores out because they don't represent how well their children perform in school as a whole. In short, states are ranked using scores from various tests under different circumstances. Figure that one out.

If you would like to see your state's education standards and compare them with other states' benchmarks, visit

Although some states list more skills, some less, you may be surprised how much the lists have in common.

Even more interesting, you can view the international standards here (at least as of 2007).

So often the media prattles on about how awful American education is in comparison with other countries. So why are successful businesses, inventions, and helpful medications so regularly exported from the rich crazy uncle across the Atlantic?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting Help for Struggling Kids

You know your child is struggling in math, reading, or both. Every night at the kitchen table, homework takes a lot of hard work, time and maybe some tears. Your child could have a learning disability: a disorder characterized by difficulty with certain skills in individuals with normal intelligence.

You request an evaluation for possible learning problems, but the teacher says your child is doing too well in school to warrent testing for learning disabilities (usually kids performing better than two years below grade level don't get assessed). But what about the kids who barely get by in class because their parents work so hard with them at home? I can't tell you how many times I've heard diligent parents complain that school personnel have refused to test kids that perform "well enough" at school.

Should conscientious parents stop helping their kids at home? NO!

First, take a look at a checklist on a reputable website to see if your child shows symptoms of someone who has a learning disability.

Next, if your child fits several of the descriptions mentioned on the checklist, request, in writing, that the school give your child a learning assessment. A private school may not test for learning disabilities, but they may offer resources to seek an evaluation. You may also visit the public schools' district office in your neighborhood. Most of the time, states require districts to administer tests to residents' children, regardless of whether kids attend public school.

Did you know a parent's written request to assess a child for learning disabilities at a public school means the school MUST test the child? The time frames and stipulations vary from state to state. Usually, upon receipt of your letter stating why you believe your child may have a learning difficulty, and why an evaluation is required to meet your child's needs, the school has to give parents a copy of their rights and responsibilities, and the child an evaluation within 60 days.

Finally, be sure to follow up with your child's teacher, the school or district administration. Since many parents don't know how the system works, kids with learning disabilities can fall through the cracks.

If you believe your child will benefit from a learning assessment, push the issue. Make sure it gets done. Due to your hard work at home, your child may be squeaking by in the classroom. That means, your child may not qualify for a pull-out program, usually one to two hours of small group instruction with a resource specialist, outside the classroom. That's OK. Sometimes kids are happier to stay in class with their peers than leave the room for different lessons. But knowing which learning obstacles your child faces will allow you and your child's teachers to come up with interventions that can be used both at home and at school to compensate for disabilities.

Check out your state's education website as well as your local school district for guidelines specific to your area.

If you have experiences with getting help for your child at school, positive or negative, please share them!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Use Your Kids' Talents to Kickstart Learning

A fifth grade friend of mine draws fabulous dragons and other medieval characters, but sometimes learning in school doesn’t rate at the top of his list. There are lots of tricks to help arty kids, athletic kids, all kinds of kids do better in school.

Use your child’s strengths, something your child is passionate about, to give a learning boost and make it fun!

Math Example: If your child loves to draw and is having trouble learning how to add and subtract fractions, ¾ + 5/12 for instance, get out two sheets of paper and a pair of scissors. Have your child draw the same object on each page – in Andrew’s case, it might be a knight or a dragon – and cut the paper in the fractions to be added. Once your child cuts one paper in fourths and the other paper in twelfths, it will become obvious why the denominators have to become the same.

Language Example: “Make words” to help an arty or physical kid that has a tough time with spelling words. Get a piece of paper and use a ruler or book to draw horizontal and vertical lines to make a grid, about an inch apart. For K-2, write a letter in each box to represent the letters your child will need to make each spelling word. Have your child help you choose which letters to put in the boxes. Kids in grades 3-5 can write their own letters in the boxes (Kids K-2 can do write them once they see you do it a couple times). This REALLY helps to solidify letter sounds and patterns. Have your child cut on the lines and set out the letters to look like paper Scrabble tiles. Your child can then “make” each word with the paper tiles, put the words in patterns, make shapes out of multiple squares, trace the outside shape of a word with a pencil, point out the letters and letter combinations the spelling words have in common that week … Get creative! There is no right or wrong. Keep the letters in a bag, and take them out to put some of the spelling words together each day. You’ll be amazed at how much this will improve reading and writing, too.

Quick Tip for best results with ANY activity: Make it a game to figure out how to use as many of the five senses as possible – see, touch, hear, smell, and taste – to complete homework assignments.

For instance: use food, such as a dry cereal like Cheerios, to help with a new math concept. You may be able to use all five senses, depending on the food you choose and the concept your child is working on.

Having trouble figuring out a game to play to help your child learn something?

Email me at and I’ll send one to you. J

Do you have an activity you’d like to share that helps your child learn?

Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Your Child's Having Learning Troubles? Relax and Breathe

Recently, a conscientious mom with five children told me she "held her daughter back a year" from beginning kindergarten due to her little girl's delayed speech and fall birthday.

Please remember: Attitude is everything!

Anyone who has raised children will tell you that all kids come with their own package of challenges, and parents are 3-dimensional humans as well. That's what keeps parenting interesting.

Here's the thing: If you believe your child deserves an extra year to mature before starting school, don't tell people: "I held my child back a year."

Instead say: "I gave my child an extra year at home (or in preschool), so she could be one of the older kids, instead of the youngest in the classroom."

If your child struggles with learning, relax and breathe.Just because society says it's time to read or write or learn a bunch of math concepts doesn't mean all children mature at the same rate. Don't mention the time it's taking for your son or daughter to get it together. Have some fun while you watch skills develop on your child's own timetable.

With picture books, try these ideas. Eventually independent reading skills will come.

  • Read stories together frequently.

  • Play rhyming games and "I Spy" when driving from place to place in the car, waiting in the doctor's office or in line at the grocery store. Besides, making these mundane tasks more fun for everyone, these activities help children to hear and use letter sounds, which helps in learning to read.

  • Point to the words with your index finger as you read the aloud. This will help your child's eyes learn to track from left to right and to start recognizing high frequency words.

  • Ask what your child likes about the pictures. Illustrations make the plot of a story more accessible for the younger set. Where a child may not understand all the language, drawings make story details more clear. Also the pictures can help motivate wiggly kids to stay engaged in a story.

  • Find out what your child thinks will happen next. It doesn't matter whether your child's predictions are right or wrong. Whether guesses are proved or disproved in the following pages, your child's comprehension will improve by leaps and bounds.

  • Ham it up! Read with as much expression as possible to keep the story interesting. You don't have to be a movie star to be a good story teller. Be patient with yourself and remember practice makes better (no such thing as perfect).

  • Pick out fun books to borrow at the library. Most public libraries allow you to read all day if you want to (or for 10 minutes if that's all the time you have), and you can check out books for a month. I recommend writing down the due date on your calendar because borrowing books from the library is only free if you remember to turn them in on time. Believe me. I've learned this the hard way.

  • Go to the bookstore and make it an outing. Barnes and Nobel, Borders, and others have coffee shops inside that sell kid-friendly drinks. Read a couple picture books to your grade schooler in a comfy chair in the children's section. Then choose another book to buy and read aloud in the Starbucks or Seattle's Best over a fruit smoothie or a hot chocolate.

  • Whatever you do, make sure reading is a FUN, POSITIVE experience! - At least at home or with the family.

Some kids have trouble with anything to do with math, but parents can step in to make that journey much for fun and successful, too. Don't tell your child about how you stink at math if the subject never came easy for you either. Instead, do some things to make messing with numbers and patterns fun. You may find that your math skills improve as well.

  • To help with learning how to tell time, ask your child what time it is throughout the day. After you practice this for a while and telling time comes easier, you can start asking second, third and fourth graders how much more time they have to get ready before you have to leave for school or baseball practice, or how much more time there is to play before you have to go home, etc. By third and fourth grade, you can also ask how much time they have already played. - If we got here at 4:04, and now it's 5:15, how much time did you get to play with your friend today?

  • To help with counting or numbers or patterns, set a pile of Fruit Loops, or any food item that comes in various colors, on a plate on the kitchen table for your child to group by color, to make long lines of repeating patters, to count, to add, and to eat (perfect for learning more about subtraction). Even making pictures out of the small pieces helps develop strength and dexterity in the small muscles for writing, so the activity doesn't have to be structured. In other words, if you're making dinner and you can't be there to supervise, don't worry about it.

Remember: Your child will go through lots of phases on the path to maturity. Keep a positive attitude (even when something your child does makes you nervous), do things with your child that make learning FUN, and enjoy the ride!

If you have a fun activity you'd like to share, make sure to leave a comment so that other parents can try it out. :-)

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Fresh Start in 2010

Tips for starting the year with positive energy and attitudes towards learning

1. Set up a new bedtime ritual or reestablish a tried-and-true one to make sure your child gets that all-important ZZzz time.

Fun bedtime routine ideas:

  • Read or tell a story at the kitchen table while drinking herbal tea (obviously without caffeine) or warm milk (the tryptophan in the milk behaves as a natural sedative). This activity gives kids a chance to wind down before hitting the sheets.
  • Sing a favorite prayer, or take turns singing made-up prayers, to the tune of a mellow familiar song, such as "Taps."
  • Play quiet, relaxing music in the bedroom during story time (CDs specifically designed for this purpose are available at stores such as Bed Bath and Beyond). Allow the CD to continue playing after the story and nighttime hugs.

Remember that later bedtimes during vacation and anxiety keep lots of kids tossing and turning the night before they go back to school. It's completely normal and nothing to worry about. Here's the Key: Once the light goes out and you say good night, the light stays out, and your child must stay in bed. Within 2 or 3 days, your child should get used to the new or reestablished bedtime habits as long as you are consistent.

2. Set clothes out and get the backpack in ship shape (or have homeschooling kids clean and sort out their work area) the night before stepping back into the academic routine. Hint: sometimes new tokens, something as simple as a new eraser or a colorful pencil, will get kids excited about returning to learning.

3. Keep the first several days back to school as free as possible of appointments and extra curricular activities while your child readjusts to homework routines and sleeping hours.

4. The afternoon of the first day back, make sure to ask your child specific questions. Ask about activities in different subject areas, which buddies played what games at recess, the favorite lunch item of the day ... you get the idea.

This will maintain an open dialog between you and your grade schooler. Not only will you get more detailed answers to "What did you do at school today?" or "What did you learn today?" but you will keep communication open, an absolute MUST to getting to the bottom of problems that may arise in the future. Besides, establishing a pattern of communication now will be a big help when your kids hit middle school. Honest!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sleep: How much kids need and how to get it

With the school year in full swing, do you notice your child winding down and running out of gas as the week wears on? New studies indicate that lack of sleep causes behavioral problems in children and can even be linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD). According to Sleep for Kids: A National Sleep Foundation, children 5 to 12 years old need 10 to 12 hours of sleep nightly to learn and get along with peers in school. Adequate sleep also allows for healthy bone and tissue growth.

On the flip side, research shows that children perform two years below their grade level on school work and in learning new material when they don't get enough Zzzz time.

For those parents whose kids hit the pillow and conk out, like cutting the strings on a marionette, and you've managed to get enough consistent sleep for the younger set in your household, kudos!

For the rest of us, here's a few tips to make sure your children get enough sleep to meet demands at school and in life.

  1. Establish a bedtime routine and be consistent. Set aside 10 to 30 minutes even if your pattern as an adult is to be flexible and free wheeling. When children form nightly habits, such as watching a TV show, eating a snack (caffeine free), bathing, then reading a book before the lights go out, they are more able to wind down and get ready to relax into sleep. Note: if medicines, such as cough syrup must be given, avoid products with caffeine or other stimulants.

  2. Do whatever you can to make sure your child goes to bed at the same time every night and gets up at the same time in the morning. Researchers report that kids who go to bed at various times rather than having a consistent bedtime are twice as likely to have difficulties in getting to sleep. They also wake during the night more frequently.

  3. Keep the bedtime hour as consistent as possible on the weekends, too. The change in snoozing hours over the weekend can mess up circadian rhythms that take several days to reestablish, thus depriving your child of sleep during the week.

  4. Interact with your child at bedtime. This precious, potent together time will relax both of you, bring you closer, and give your child confidence at home that will transfer to the outside world of school. Besides, these school years will fly by. You don't want to miss this opportunity to snuggle on the bed with your loved one and read a story together before the lights go out. You will, most likely, dearly miss this when fifth or sixth grade rolls around, unless you continue to read novels aloud together (which is actually a lot of fun!). Even if you are a parent that has to travel, you can visit Bedtime Story online and read a story to your child over the phone.

  5. Once the lights go out, leave your child to fall asleep alone. This will help to develop independence as well as make it easier to go back to sleep after normal awakenings during the night.

For ADHD children or other extremely difficult customers in the sleep department, Patricia Quinn, M.D. published some excellent tried and true bedtime techniques in ADDitude Magazine. If your child falls into this category, check it out.

(Special thanks to Lisa Olmos, mother of two in Imperial Beach, California for requesting this blog topic.)