Category Archives: Parenting

The Best Age to Start Swimming Lessons: Advice from a Veteran Teacher, Mom and Grandma

Swim Blog picI am often asked, “What is the best age for my child to start swim lessons?”  Typically, my answer is, “Not two,” as two year olds can be very uncooperative at times, but in reality the answer is very complex.  There are many factors to consider when determining when to enroll your child in formal lessons, but the most important thing is that your child does learn to swim.  According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) 10 people die of unintentional drowning per day.  The largest risk group is children ages 1 to 4.  Drowning is responsible for more deaths in this age group than any other cause except birth defects.  There are many factors that influence drowning risks, but one of the top factors is lack of swimming ability.  In fact, recent research has shown that formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning not only for older children and adults, but also for this high risk group of children between the ages of 1 and 4.

While it seems to make sense to provide lessons for your child as soon as possible formal swim programs vary on the age at which they provide lessons for young children.  Most programs do not recommend formal lessons for children under 6 months of age, and even at this age skills learned will be limited due to limited developmental ability.  Of course if you are going to invest time and money into a formal swim class you will want to see your child make progress toward becoming an independent swimmer.  There are four main factors that determine how quickly children learn to swim independently; developmental level, natural ability, instruction (formal and informal) and opportunity to practice.  With these facts in mind, let’s look at some common considerations to think of as you consider the best timetable for your child.

What to consider:

  • Exposure to Water Environments-

In some areas water activities are common and plentiful and in others they are not.  In terms of safely, if you live in an area where your child has easy access to water, the younger you start lessons the better.  While there are swim schools that promise to “water proof” your child it is important to remember that no child is truly water safe.  I like the term, “water predictable” better.  When your child is water predictable you know how he or she will typically react in aquatic environments.  While no child, especially a very young child, should be left unattended around water, a child who has learned basic rules and skills and knows how to behave in water environments will typically behave in a more predictable manner.  Not only will the child know and understand what he or she can safely do to save him or herself, but parents, having seen their child in aquatic situations, will know how the child is likely to behave.  This can buy you the seconds or minutes needed to save your child if necessary.

Not only is the availability of water important in safety considerations, it is also important to consider in light of practice time.  One of the most important factors in how quickly children learn to swim is the availability of practice time.  Formal lessons are of little use if the child’s only time in the water is during the lesson.  Swim lessons should happen in conjunction with plenty of supervised water play time when skills can be practiced.

  • Time and Availability of Appropriate Lessons

Swim lessons may be taught by large swim schools, community programs, backyard swim programs as well as schools, day camp programs and preschools.  There are parent and child programs, one on one classes, as well as large group classes.  I will cover the pros and cons of these types of programs below, but the first thing you must determine is what is available in your area.  It is important to consider the goals in the program you are considering to make sure they match your personal goals for your child.  While traditional swim sessions run for about 8 to 10 days with lessons lasting 20 min. to a half hour, more intensive programs can run for many weeks meeting several days a week.  Part of your decision on when and where to enroll your child is if the program meets your schedule.  Children will make the best progress with consistent attendance in the program of your choice.  Choosing a program that fits your schedule well will help alleviate absences.

Typical Features of Various lesson types:

Private Swim School:

  • Main goal is to make a profit, however many are also quite passionate about their particular brand of swim instruction
  • Lessons may be available year round
  • Lesson are likely to be offered many times throughout the day
  • Teachers may have more experience, as this may be their main job, and typically need some sort of certification to teach
  • May be quite expensive
  • Methods may be quite different than other programs with a specific focus, such as “water safe” skills or swim team skill development
  • All ages are typically serviced, and some provide lessons for very young children

Community Programs:

  • Main goal is typically safety and as a service to the community
  • Lessons are typically only available during the summer months
  • Lesson times can be very rigid and limited
  • Teachers may be young and inexperienced, however there may be a few veterans; They will be required to have some sort of certification
  • Usually reasonably priced
  • Methods are usually standardized and developed by large organizations (such as the American Red Cross) teaching well researched skills and with practiced methodologies
  • While some may offer parent and child or preschool classes the focus is typically on courses for school aged children

Backyard Programs:

  • These programs vary from organized groups that facilitate small groupings in neighborhood pools, private instructors who come to your home or individuals who offer lessons in their own or others’ pools; Goals vary based on the group type.
  • Lessons typically only during summer months
  • Lesson times can be quite limited, however may be more flexible and adapted to individual needs.
  • Teacher experience varies greatly, be sure to ask what experience and training the teacher has had
  • Fees vary widely, from free and low cost community sponsored programs, to expensive private lessons

Private or Semi-Private Lessons:

  • Goals in these programs vary; Most useful for adults or older children looking to perfect strokes (Typically, young children and children just learning to swim do much better in a group, where they can see other students in their general age group performing the skills they are working on.)
  • Typically, lesson times are tailored to needs of students
  • Teacher experience varies; Be sure to ask about certifications and experience
  • Quite expensive

Preschool or Day Camp Programs:

  • Main goal of these programs is typically to provide lessons for children who may not otherwise have access to swim lessons because they attend all day preschool or day camp programs
  • Lessons typically take place during the regular school or day camp hours
  • Lesson can be offered in large classes, small groups or in private or semi-private groups
  • Teacher experience varies
  • May be part of the preschool or camp fees, or may be an extra fee
  • No standardized methods, however many states require teachers to hold a water safety certificate issued by a authorizing agency, such as the American Red Cross, with standardized procedures

Another factor to consider when looking at swim programs is practice time.  Does the facility offer time for children to practice?  Is there an open swim time?  Can they stay in the water after their lesson, or do they have to get out immediately after?  Remember, a key to how quickly children learn to swim independently is practice time.  If children have an opportunity to practice their skills in the same location as they receive instruction this is a real plus.

  • Child’s Skills and Temperament

While every child can and should learn to swim, some children are naturally more adept at an early age.  Some of the hundreds of children I have taught to swim include my 5 children and 10 of my 11 grandchildren (the youngest being too young for formal lessons).  While all have been quite proficient swimmers by about the age of 4 or 5, some reached that level of proficiency at a much earlier age.  While there have been some variations in the availability of practice time, the main difference has been natural ability and temperament.

Some children take to a body of water as if they are part fish.  Holding their breath, moving arms and legs, jumping into the water and navigating entries and exits are quickly mastered and all that is needed is the development of the ability to lift their head to breathe and instruction in formal strokes.  These children are easy and fun to teach to swim.  When these children take lessons as infants or preschoolers they often master in one day what it takes their less adept peers to learn in an entire session.  While it is important to teach these children safety rules and basic skills, sometimes those can be easily taught outside of formal lessons.  The most important thing with this kind of child is for parents to have clear rules about when the child can and cannot jump in and swim and enforce them.  While some of the skills these children possess can help save them, they may also be very brave and jump in to bodies of water unexpectedly.  Even very young children can and should be taught to ask and get permission before jumping in and “swimming” to others.  If you or your child need formal lessons to master these safety skills then do take advantage of this.

Blake Swims still

Click here for an example of a natural swimmer.  This is Blake, my grandson, who at just 2  could easily and naturally swim across the pool.

For other children, however, every individual skill is difficult and laborious.  They are not fond of water in the face, and instead of holding their breath their natural inclination may be to suck up water.  They can move their arms or legs in the water, but don’t ask for both at the same time.  Jumping in is a scary proposition, and all water entries and exits take a while to learn and adjust to.  These children will take much longer to master basic swim skills, and will probably require several sessions of lessons to feel comfortable in the water.  Generally, these fearful children are a lot less likely to jump into a body of water unexpectedly, however a fearful child is more likely to suck up water if accidentally submerged and drown within seconds vs. the minutes that may be afforded with effective breath-holding.  Often, the parent with the brave child is more apt to pursue early swim lessons, however in some ways the fearful child can benefit more.

Another important factor to consider in this area is how well your child adapts to and learns from others.  For very young children parent and child lessons are often available, however once the parent is not involved in the lessons children react differently to a swim teacher.  Generally, the more friendly the child is with the teacher the quicker he or she will learn.  This is why I generally advise that children not start lessons at the age of 2.  While there are exceptions, most 2 year olds are not friendly with new adults and are often not even cooperative with their own parents.  For this reason, most children do better starting at a younger age or starting when they are a bit older.

  • Parent Goals and Desire for Child

So, what are your goals for your child?  Are you looking for the next big Olympic medalist?  Is safety your big thing, or do you just want your kids to have a good time?  You will want to make sure that your goals match the type of lessons that you choose.  As you look for available resources keep this in mind; look for lessons that match what you believe is important.  Don’t be afraid to share your goals with the school or teacher.  It will help them to tailor what they teach to your child.  And, if the direction the lessons you chose ends up not fitting your needs, feel free to choose another program.  The most important thing is that you do teach your child to swim!

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Sorry Parents, but Common Core is probably not going away for a good, long time.

In my previous posts I talked about how we were doing Common Core wrong, and what teachers could do to make the transition easier.  Here is part 3, the part where I have some advice for parents.  Now parents, before you start to think I don’t get you because I am a teacher you need to understand.  I was a parent before I was a public school teacher.  Long before I held a parent teacher conference or consulted with parents as a teacher I was on the other side of the table.  I know that a lot of teachers have kids, but a large majority of them were teachers first, and parents second.  Trust me, it is different.  And, I had kids who struggled, so it required me to be pretty involved to get them through school.  And, that involvement was not always smooth and easy.  So, I totally get you.  I get how sometimes schools, teachers and parents don’t see eye to eye.  But here is the thing, now that I have been on the teacher side of the table, I get them too.  It puts me in the unique position to give advice, that I think is valid, to both teachers and parents.

So, parents, when it comes to Common Core I have three pieces of advice:

  • Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time.
  • Ask how you can help, before you complain. And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.
  • If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send it back with a note.

#1- Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time

Surely, if we put up enough fuss, if we make our voices heard and if we complain to our representatives we will get rid of it, right?  Well, probably not.  True, there are some states that backed down from Common Core, but these states did not go back to the previous standards.  They adopted new standards, and most of the new standards are very similar to Common Core.  So, like it or not, these standards, or something very much like them, are here to stay for a good long time.  To help you better understand why this is true I would like to define a few things, and explain a few things that parents and the general public may not understand just because they don’t deal with the inner workings of public education.

What are standards?  Educational standards define the knowledge and skills students ideally should possess at critical points in their educational development. “Standards serve as a basis of educational reform across the nation as educators and policy makers respond to the call for a clear definition of desired outcomes of schooling and a way to measure student success in terms of these outcomes” (National Research Council 2001).  Let’s liken standards to developmental milestones.  Most parents are familiar with these milestones because when you visit your pediatrician for a well-child check up your doctor will ask you, is your child crawling yet, can he roll over, can she sit up on her own or can he say 10 words.  These milestones are based on the average age at which children typically acquire these skills.  So if your child is significantly behind other children at her age it signals to your pediatrician that there may be a developmental delay or health issue.

Educational standards are a bit like this.  They list the grade at which students should have the identified skills and knowledge.  There are some differences, however.  The first major difference is that standards are tied to grade level, not to student age.  The obvious problem of this is that students at any given grade level will represent a sizable range in age, as well as developmental level.  Of course the nature of our public school system requires this age range, but this fact makes it difficult to say that a child that does not attain a certain standard is behind other students when he or she may simply be younger or slower to develop than other students at that grade level.  The next major difference between standards and developmental benchmarks is that given a supportive and healthy environment and typical developmental abilities young children will automatically acquire the milestones.  Educational standards, however, represent skills and knowledge that students must be taught, not that they will acquire on their own.   So, the problem with judging children based on these standards is that attainment requires just the right mix of quality teaching and educational readiness, as well as student engagement.  The third major difference between developmental milestones and standards is that milestones are based on what the typical child has been shown to master.  Standards, on the other hand, are more arbitrary.  They are not necessarily developed with the typical development of children in mind.  In my opinion, this was one of the major problems with the previous set of standards in the state of California.  They did not seem to match what is known about child development.  The jury is still out on how well the Common Core standards fit developmental levels, but I do believe that one area that better fits development levels is in the area of 8th grade math.  The previous California standards required every 8th grade student to learn algebra.  This requirement in no way took into account the developmental level of the typical 13 year old and caused much frustration among parent and students, as well as teachers.

How did Standards across the nation Come to Be?  During most of the history of public education state and local agencies set standards of what would be taught when, but these guidelines were often very loose and unregulated.  So it was not uncommon for individual teachers to teach what they wanted, when they wanted.  In 1989 George W. Bush met with many of the nation’s governors at the Charlottesville Education Summit and developed educational goals.  Goals centered around targets to measure educational improvement that asked states to give up some of their autonomy to provide for more educational excellence nation-wide.  “There is a growing recognition that an essential next step for education reform is establishing consensus around a set of national goals for education improvement, stated in terms of the results and outcomes we as a nation need for the education system.”  From this summit sprang “No Child Left Behind” and the required standards and high stakes testing that states began to adopt.  The plan was for each state to determine what a “proficient” student looked like and how to assess it.  Seemed like a good idea to ensure autonomy of the states, while moving closer to accounting for what they taught, but in practice this plan did not work well.  Some states, for instance Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, set their standards so low that a large majority of their students scored proficient on their state tests, while independent tests showed that their students were genuinely nowhere near the proficiency that their scores would indicate.

So the deal was this, every year states would be required to increase the number of students who scored proficient.  Little by little, we would give students the skills they needed to all reach proficiency.  2014 was the year this was supposed to happen.  Every student was supposed to be proficient across the nation.  Yep, every kids 100%.  Do you see a problem with this plan?  Well, there were many.  First, in order to get 100% of any group of people anywhere to be proficient at anything is a bit problematic.  I can’t think of a single skill that everyone on this earth is capable of showing complete proficiency in, not even breathing.  At any one time there is a sizable number of the population that needs a machine to breathe, so even something as essential as breathing, cannot show 100% proficiency.  And, this was 100% of the population enrolled in public school, yep, even students with severe learning problems.  The last major flaw in this plan was the disparity of standards.  Some states did reach or come very close to that 100% level, but their standards were set so low when compared to other measures they were really quite meaningless.  As the number of students required to be at proficient increased, and more and more schools and districts were unable to reach the standard it became increasingly clear that the plan was just not working.

This is the environment in which Common Core Standards were born.  Didn’t it make a lot more sense to measure the whole nation with similar standards instead of widely varied one?  A lot of people thought so, which is what spurred the spread of the new standards.

How is curriculum different from standards?  There seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding on the difference between curriculum and standards.  I often hear and see people refer to books or specific curriculum and insinuate that those items are synonymous with the Common Core Standards.  Even many websites designed for teachers provide activities and worksheets labeled as “Common Core Curriculum.”  In reality, there is no such thing.  Standards are like a list of things that student should learn; curriculum is how it will be taught.  For instance, if I want to teach you touch typing I can use many methods, such as on-line games or programs, or yours mother’s old typing class materials.  Touch typing would be like the standard, what will be learned.  The method is like the curriculum, how it will be taught.

No matter how good or bad standards are, they are not designed to teach students anything.  What teaches are good teachers and good curriculum.  Great standards can be completely unsuccessful with poor teaching and/or curriculum.  And, by the same token, good curriculum and teachers can often mitigate the problems with poor standards.

Can we get rid of Common Core?  When I hear people talk about getting rid of Common Core I often wonder if they know what this really entails.  As an illustration, let’s think about the direction that public education is headed as a long freight train moving down the track.  It takes an awful lot to get it moving forward, and once it does it takes an awful lot to stop it or change its path.  You see, new standards take years and years to create.  Once they are created they need to be adopted and then synthesized into a usable state.  The standards must then be disseminated to districts, schools, administrators and finally to teachers.  Once everyone knows the new standards, how it will be taught must be decided.  People start creating curriculum and publishers begin to develop materials.  Adoption of new materials can take years, and often early curriculum does not do a very good job of teaching the new standards.  We are in the midst of this process of change.  It took a long time, a considerable amount of money and a great deal of effort to get this train moving down the Common Core track.  Some states are a bit further down the track than the State of California which is in the very early stages of adopting curriculum (publishers have developed and distributed transitionary materials only for schools to use until state adopted curriculum are available).  But the standards and especially the curriculum that would supporting teaching of those standards are still in their infancy.  States are unlikely to abandon something that has absorbed so many resources to implement, especially when you consider that it is way too early to determine the value of the standards or the efficacy of the curriculum.  That is also why states that have moved away from Common Core have adopted standards so similar.  The freight train has just picked up speed and it is difficult, and probably ill-advised, to stop or change the direction of that train.  States that have moved away from Common Core have just moved to a parallel track moving in the same direction.

#2- •      Ask how you can help, before you complain.  And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.

There was a time when parents had a lot of power over public education.  They hired the teachers, set the standards and determined a school calendar that fit the needs of their family life.  Although the days are long gone when parents have this much influence over schools, parents do need to understand that they continue to wield a good deal of power.  Many decisions are made based on the views of the public and the desires of parents.  However, parents also need to understand that there is a way to wield that power that is successful and builds collaborative relationships, and there is a way to wield that power that can be very unsuccessful and may build roadblocks to schools and parents working together.  The most important thing that parents can do to influence change in their local schools is to gain credibility in the sights of teachers and administers.  There are several things that parents can do to gain credibility and be able to influence decision making, but the most important thing is to make yourself known in a positive manner.  I cannot say enough about the benefits of parents becoming involved in their public schools by working with parent groups and committees, volunteering in the classroom or making themselves available to assist with school and extra-curricular activities.  Once you make yourself visible and helpful you are no longer just someone’s parent, you are a known, valued member of the school community.

It is quite unlikely that your child will make it through their years of public education without something that you need to complain about.  It is not uncommon for actions, policies and procedures to violate what parents feel are in the best interest of their child.  At those times parents should speak up and they can wield quite a bit of power.  However, public school policies are designed to keep the power in the hands of administrators.  They will not easily allow parents to come in and start directing how things should be run.  But if parents take the time to make themselves credible to school personal, it will increase the likelihood that their voice will be heard.  The first step is to become involved.  This should be done long before a problem arises so that the school sees you as a helpful asset, not as someone who is only helping because of ulterior motives.  The next step is to do your homework.  Whether you are complaining about standards, curriculum, a policy or an altercation your child had with an adult or another student gather as many credible facts as you can.  I cannot tell you how many meetings I have been in with parents that were very upset about something, only for the parents to find out that they completely misunderstood the situation.  Once these steps have been taken, be sure you present your concerns in a calm, coherent, specific manner.  Complaints such as, “We need to get rid of Common Core,” does not build credibility for your case at all.  What about the standards are you concerned about, and what do you think needs to change?  While it is unlikely that states will entirely abandon Common Core or standards that are very similar, there is a lot of room for input on how the standards will be implemented and what the adopted curriculum will look like.

#3- If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send the HW back with a note

Changing standards and curriculum is a big deal and a long and difficult process.  One of the primary complaints of parents with the shift in standards is that they don’t understand the homework, and neither does their child.  Be assured, your child’s teacher is pretty frustrated by this too.  Not only is it difficult to learn and teach new materials in a new manner, but as I mentioned before curriculum has not even been fully developed, and many of the transitional materials are not very good.  This makes for a frustrating situation for everyone involved.  It is a bit like learning to drive a new car, when the car is only half built, and pieces are being added on as you drive.

But here’s the thing parents, remember the power you wield?   Here’s one place you can really exercise it, homework.  Parents, you are ultimately responsible for your children and for what goes on in the hours between the end of school one day, and the beginning of the next.  While teachers would love it if each and every child would complete the homework that were assigned each day, the fact of the matter is that it often does not happen.  Sometimes it gets forgotten, or there are other family obligations or emergencies and yes, sometimes they just don’t understand what to do.  And you know what, as earthshaking as this may seem, if the homework does not get done some of the time, life goes on.  Of course, it is a problem if your child never does their homework.  But, what would happen if when you and your child don’t understand the homework you just wrote a note explaining the problem and told your child we won’t be doing this tonight?  If you have already taken the time to build that relationship earlier with your school and your child’s teacher they would probably understand and find a better way to communicate with you and/ or your child what should be done.

In conclusion, I would just like to share some Common Core successes.  Teaching in a California school for the first year of full Common Core adoption has been frustrating and an awful lot of work.  But I am starting to see some of the benefits of being able to delve a bit deeper into topics instead of skimming the surface as our last set of standards required.  The old standards moved so quickly that students had no time to really master anything, especially in math.  So the 6th grade math teacher that I work with and I slowed down even a bit more for the class that I support because they struggle in math.  We took a bit more time to really understand some number concepts and how the whole system works, especially when it relates to fractional concepts.  And, you know what?  When we came back around later in the year to using those fractional concepts, for the first time in a long time I did not get blank stares when I asked what .5 meant.  They had actually learned it, and I had students who could tell me that .5 was the same as one half.  That may seem like a small victory, and they certainly don’t all “get it” but I can’t tell you how many times I have dealt with whole groups of students who had no idea that .5 is the same as one half.  I feel that Common Core math, at least at the level I am dealing with, will be much more successful in preparing our students for actually using numbers in real life.

Lastly, I would like to share an example, pulled from the pages of my Facebook Newsfeed.  These comments came from a post of a mom who felt frustrated about how her child was being taught math, and both she and her daughter were struggling.  Interestingly, this mom lives in a state that did not adopt Common Core, however their standards are quite similar.  These posts are from friends from several different states, in various stages of teaching math differently.  Names were omitted.

  • Responder 1 – I’ve been trying to teach myself a lot of these new algorithms that my kids have been learning….and my first reaction is to reject them as hippy dippy nonsense, then after doing it for half an hour, I wish they taught us this stuff when I was a kid.
  • Original Poster- For my daughter math has been a struggle. When they teach so many different ways to do the same thing it confuses her more- doesn’t help.
  • Responder 1-I also struggled with math so much as a kid and it wasn’t until I was teaching “new math” that I really got it and watched soooo many kids really begin to understand how math works instead of just regurgitating facts. I know it can be hard as a parent to watch but honestly, sometimes the brightest students will struggle with these methods at first but they come out so much more fluid and flexible in their mathematical reasoning skills.
  • Original Poster- I hope so!
  • Responder 2- Going through this from 1st to 3rd grade with my daughter was the real struggle. Now that she’s in 4th grade, it makes a lot more sense to me, and looking back, the 1st-3rd grade stuff was doing a good job leading up to what comes after. I think the hardest thing was that the instruction didn’t make sense, and that’s probably due to it being new to everybody, including a lot of the teachers.

So there you go folks, to take us back to our train analogy the ride may be long and bumpy, but eventually I think it will get us to our destination much better than our older standards were doing.  Of course, you are welcome to your own point of view; varying points of view are one of the things that make this country great.  However, I would admonish you to take my advice and realize that Common Core is probably not going anywhere, know when and how to complain and feel free to let teachers know when the homework just doesn’t work.  Parents, you can wield a lot of power, but doing it the right was will be much more successful.

Still Hating Car Seat Laws?

Shortly after my post expressing arguments against car seat laws four of my grandchildren were in a potentially serious car accident.  They were taken to two different hospitals, and one of my granddaughters had to have surgery for a head injury.

So, one may wonder, has my view of car seat laws changed?  The answer is, absolutely not!  I still hate car seat laws.

First, let me make one thing clear, I am not opposed to the use of car seats.  Car seats have made automobile travel much safer for young children, and every young child should travel strapped into one.  What I am opposed to are car seat laws.  The mothers of my grandchildren are all extremely vigilant about car seat use.  But, they are not vigilant because of the law; they are vigilant because they want their children to be safe.  Laws do not engender vigilance.  Laws encourage compliance, but for car seats to be used with the maximum amount of safety and effectiveness one must be vigilant about their use, not just compliant.  Vigilant parents are informed parents.  A good educational campaign is much more likely to inform parents about the necessity of proper car seat laws than increasingly restrictive laws.

Second, car seats make automobile travel safer, but do not guarantee a lack of injuries.  My grandchildren who were in the accident were all properly belted into their car seats.  The two younger children were in full car seats, and the older children were in booster seats.  My injured granddaughter was hit by a flying object, it appears it was a cover from the front passenger seat air bag (she was in the back), and incurred a large cut on her head and a concussion.  We live in a world where more and more people want a guarantee of safety, and law makers want to protect us from ourselves.  Guess what, even when you do the right thing bad things happen.

Third, the accident brought me face to face with one of the original problems that car seat laws pose, no contingencies for justifiable exceptions.  After the accident my 4 grandchildren were taken to two different hospitals, and their car, with car seats still strapped in, was taken to a towing yard.  My granddaughter who needed surgery and her mother were taken to one hospital, and the other three to another.  I went to meet these three children, and fortunately, a friend was able to travel from the scene of the accident and stay with those children until I got there.  Within a short period of time of when I arrived they determined these children were fine, despite the seatbelt bruise that the 4-year-old had sustained.  One thing kept going through my mind as I was driving to the hospital and as I waited for discharge papers, “How am I going to get these children home?”  They had arrived at the hospital via ambulance, and now their car seats were towed off to who knows where.

I was fortunate that the friend that was with the children was able to get her husband to come and bring car seats for the kids, but the question kept going through my mind of what would people do who did not have such friends?  Would they have to run to the store and buy new car seats?  Would the hospital keep the kids until seats could be found, what if I could not afford such a purchase?  True, transporting them home strapped into a regular belt would not have been as safe as a car or booster seat, but there are times when we have to do the best with what we have.  And so, this experience made me hate car seat laws all the more.

What Happened to Being a Kid?

Spring is here, and as a middle school teacher this is always the time of year that we have to work on strictly enforcing dress code.  Skirts get shorter, short shorts get worn and tops get skimpier.  As I look at the way some of the kids come to school I often wonder, did their parents know they were wearing this to school?  Of course middle school has always been a time for kids to experiment with dressing in more provocative ways, but I think the more disturbing trend is that children of younger and younger ages are wearing clothing that was typically reserved for adults in times past.  As one elementary school teacher noted, “Seven seems to be the new 17,” (California Educator, February 2010).  Retailers and celebrities seem to be taking full advantage of this trend marketing clothing for young children with very sexual themes.

Not only has clothing becoming much more provocative, but children are behaving in ways that were once only seen appropriate for teens.  At ages where children once spent their time playing dress up or with cars and blocks, riding their bikes around the neighborhood and playing tag and hide-and-seek they are now watching shows and playing video games with adult themes, talking about pairing up with children of the opposite sex and communicating electronically with computers and cell phones.  One of the saddest developments of this trend is the role that many parents play.  Although it may be difficult for parents to monitor everything their teen wears and anywhere they go, parents can and should monitor their younger children.  Unfortunately, not only is monitoring sometimes absent, parents may be the ones encouraging the behaviors.  Some parents find it cute when their children behave in an older manner or dress in provocative clothing.

These behaviors are not cute, nor are they harmless.  Diane Levin of Wheelock College in Boston explains that this “age compression” is not healthy, especially when it involves sexual issues and behaviors.  She explains that children do not have the intellectual or emotional ability to understand these issues, and a blurring of the boundaries between childhood and adulthood can confuse and harm children (California Educator, February 2010).

We need to promote and encourage a full childhood for our children.  Children deserve to be protected from the damaging effects of our society for as long as possible and they need to be encouraged and allowed to play and participate in age appropriate manners.

No R-Rated Movies in our Home!

Several years ago my family was advised to not watch R-Rated movies. Aside from the obvious mind pollution we have discovered some real wisdom behind this advice. This ‘rule’ applies to our children as well as to us as adults and parents.

One of the dangers of our children watching these movies, or being exposed to inappropriate behavior, is that as they see this behavior they accept it as normal. This applies to smoking, underage drinking, inappropriate relationships, disrespect, etc What they see are not movies but rather images of possible role-models.

Recently there was an incident at school where a student demonstrated that he/she possessed knowledge that was well beyond their years – and not in a positive manner. This has resulted in me thinking about the outside influences that may impact our families, and in particular children. When we hold ourselves to the same standards of behavior that we expect of our children we are much more familiar with acceptable, or normal behavior, based upon the influences around our kids. We can more easily recognize when their behavior has been influenced by outside forces that go beyond our limits. This can result in more easily identifying destructive behavior because it is behavior that we are not used to seeing in movies, etc.

When we subject ourselves to outside  depictions of destructive behavior it joins our sub-conscience and disguises itself as acceptable. When we allow our children to see these outside depictions we are tacitly endorsing these behaviors.

While we sometimes feel that we are missing out on an exciting movie the benefits of being on the same page as our children far out weigh any loss we may feel. And what have we really lost? Nothing. Unless you have experienced something you can’t feel a sense of loss.

Race to the Top of what?

President Obama’s new program for school reform has been announced and it is being called, “Race to the Top.” It provides billions of dollars to prospective schools that are willing to jump through the hoops that the federal government is establishing.  It is touted as a way to reform schools that “can transform our schools for decades to come.”

This started me thinking, what are we racing to the top of? Is the top that is sought really something that will benefit our nation’s children?  And, if so, why are we in such a hurry to get there?

As a teacher with a background in early childhood development I have had many years of studying how kids learn best.  No matter what expert you listen to, or the age of the child you are studying it boils down to one thing, kids learn best by doing.  And, kids are most likely to learn the most, and retain the most, when they are taught things appropriate for their developmental stage.  No one in their right mind would try to teach a 3 month old to walk, a 9 month old to write their name or a 2 year old calculus.  But, in some ways that is exactly what some of our school systems are trying to do.

Recently my daughter with a degree in early childhood education had a job interview for a position teaching preschool in a public school.  To the typical question, “How do preschoolers learn best,” she answered with the classic answer, “They learn through play.”  Play is the work of a preschool aged child.  They learn about their world through experimenting and manipulating materials, songs, games, stories and imaginative play.  “Well,” replied my daughter’s interviewer, “I used to think that.  Now we teach them to read and write.”  Huh?  Are preschoolers different now than when the interviewer began her career?  Does a preschooler really need to learn to read and write?  Am I a bad parent if I don’t teach my 18 month old to read?  Will my child be terribly behind if he cannot add at age 4?  Well for all you anxious parents out there, and for this misguided preschool professional, I would like to tell you that if your child is a normally developing child it makes no difference if they learn to read at 18 months, 4 or 7.

Traditionally in this country we have taught children to read at about 6 years of age.  When I was teacing kindergarten there was a big push for kindergarten aged children to learn to read.  It seemed that kindergartens, and in turn preschools, had become more academic in response to a push for children to have traditional academics at an early age.  I was intrigued with this trend, and went to a seminar that reported the results on a new study that had been done to find the best age for children to learn to read.  I was stunned by the results.  The study found that although a child could often be taught to read at a very early age, it really made no difference when this teaching began as long as it happened in early childhood for typically developing children, generally by age 7.  In addition, it was found that in third grade (when most children are 8 years) it was impossible to tell which children learned to read at 18 months, 4 or 6 years.  By third grade the child who did not learn to read or write until age 6 or 7 caught up with the others.  So when was this landmark study done?  This study was done in the late seventies and early eighties.  Yes, you are correct, this information was discovered over 30 years ago.  And many more studies have backed up this research in the ensuing years.

This misguided push is not only seen in the early grades, it is also seen in later years.  In the State of California there is a push for every 8th grader in the state to take algebra.  Algebra is an important subject that helps establish higher order thinking skills, however a push for every 13 year old to learn this skill is misguided and ridiculous.  Research has shown that the section of the brain that is responsible for abstract thinking is not fully developed until early in the 20’s.  Performance of algebraic skills requires high development of abstract thinking skills.  Some teens develop advanced skills at an early age and are able to understand the concepts necessary for algebra at an early age, however most have great difficulty with this.  When students are required to master concepts that are beyond their developmental  level  it leads to frustration and feelings of failure.  This is especially true for young teens who often suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

So, why then, are we once again pushing to teach very young children to read and write?  I think there are three major reasonsFirst, there is research that backs up early learning for children with disabilities.  I think that some overzealous educators and parents have decided that if this approach is successful for children with disabilities, it must also be successful for the average developing child.  Which brings us to the second reason for this early push; what parent does not want their child to be the best and the brightest?  If my baby can be the next Einstein by teaching him early, why not try?  Don’t I want my kid to be the first to master algebra?  Parents often push their children because they feel it will lead to their child being the best.  The third reason that I see for this push in early learning is due to politics.  Who hasn’t heard the news that the US is far behind other countries educationally?  Or that larger percentages of students do not graduate from high school?  But, did the news point out that our educational system is so vastly different than that in other countries that there really is no comparison?  Did it point out that in most other countries not every child is guaranteed an education?  And that often the students that our students are compared to are the best and brightest in the country who have passed tests to be allowed to continue on with their education, not every child in the country?  Or did the news tell you that the statistics used to determine what percentage of students graduate from high school is vastly flawed?  Did they report that the numbers they use to determine how many graduated only count those that graduate on the exact date of most students in that class?  And that the statistics do not take into account students who move, graduate even one day late or even those who graduate early?  Of course not.

So, this brings us back to Race to the Top. Politicians often use catchy names and cash awards to prove that they take education seriously.  But catchy names mean nothing, and the cash awards are often so small when distributed over a large number of schools that it is meaningless.  And have we really determined that what is at the top is really worth racing toward?

What I call for does not have a wonderfully catchy name, and it won’t get me elected to anything.  I call for a return to developmentally appropriate standards for children.  What children need is an educationally rich environment and plenty of time to develop at their own pace.  I have very intelligent children, but their intelligences are extremely varied.  I had one that taught himself to read at 4, and one that would not read a book to himself until he got to high school.  I had children who naturally understood high mathematics at a very young age, and I had children who did not really grasp algebraic concepts until college age.  I had children who had no difficulty earning high grades in school, and children who severely struggled to earn passing grades.  I had children who took 4 years of full time enrollment in a junior college to get through, and I had children who commented that college was really easy.  But guess what, none of that really mattered.  My children grew up in a home with a significant amount of daily stimulation to develop their talents, and an emphasis on continuing education.  There was no race to top, just a gradual climb to their personal best.  Now, my three oldest children hold degrees or are well established in careers of their choice and my younger ones are on the path toward their goals.  None of them was ever the top in their class, the first in their age group to master a concept or received a scholarship to a prestigious university.  But they are happy, well adjusted young adults working toward building their own family units.  Shouldn’t that be the goal, instead a race to an indeterminate top?  Slow down people, and give our children an environment in which they can develop naturally, and at the appropriate pace.

How do you set curfews?

One of the challenges with raising kids is that as they turn into teenagers their social life changes and they start to separate their identity from that of being your child to being their own person. It is our job, as parents, to allow and encourage this separation and growth. However, we must also factor in our responsibility to their safety. And safety includes physical as well as emotional protection. Part of the process of ensuring their safety is that we must be comfortable with the company they will keep, the activities they participate in, and when they come home. Each family will have to determine what activities are appropriate.

The issue that always comes up is curfew or when our child needs to be home. Many parents have a rigid approach and have a very inflexible rule. The problem with a strict and rigid rule is that life is composed of different activities and some of them do not fit into a rigid curfew rule.

In our family we NEVER had a set curfew. So what did we do to keep our kids safe? We talked to our kids about the particular activity they were participating in, who they were going to be with, and then we asked them for what they thought was a reasonable time for them to be home. We didn’t always agree with their time but we negotiated a reasonable time. There were even times when they would suggest midnight and we would counter with 11. If they countered with midnight we would often counter with 10:30. 😉 We also discussed the next day’s duties to determine if there was a reason to be home a bit earlier. When our daughters were going out on dates we would have the conversation with their escort so that all parties knew and understood our agreement.

Our children also knew that because this was an agreement with us that they had a responsibility to keep their end of our agreement. They also knew that to avoid negative consequences they had to notify us of any changes in activity, destination, people or the time expected home. In this manner we were able to evaluate their safety, with them, on an ongoing basis.

The final step of this process was that they were to check in with us when they came home. Even if we were asleep.

As our children got older (18+ and living with us) we still asked them to tell us where they were going and when they would be home. As adults they are no longer bound to us as children, but as courteous adults. We often get text messages updating us to their activities.

How will you set your curfews or limits?

Student arrested for writing on desk. Excessive?

Recently Fox News reported about a 12-year old student who was arrested for writing on a desk.  Proponents of strict consequences for students who break school rules believe that if they are tough on early offenses, students are less likely to move on to more heinous crimes.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true.  Research shows that the best punishment is a punishment that fits the crime.  Punishment that is either too lenient or too strict is not effective.  When children are given punishments that are too strict they feel helpless and unsure of their environment.  The world does not seem fair and ordered, it seems arbitrary and unfair.  When children feel there is no fair justice or reasonable consequences they are more likely to act out.

This story reminds me of an incident with one of my own children many years ago.  My child was in high school, and was accused of defacing a textbook.  The book was shown to my husband and me and it had many words written in it, including quite a few offensive words.  As a teacher I know this is not uncommon.  Quite often I have students bring me books that have had inappropriate things written or drawn in them.  As a teacher, I also know it is nearly impossible to catch the actual perpetrator of the act.  Teachers are often in a room with upwards of 30 students (or more), and it is just impossible to monitor what each student is doing and continue to teach.  Our child took some of the responsibility for the defacement, but not all, and the school proposed suspension.  We felt that restoration of the item was a much more fitting consequence.  The school agreed that if the book was paid for by all offending students that this would be sufficient.  We paid the fee, and made arrangements for our child to work off the price.

A child who writes on a desk, or in a book, should be given a consequence that fits the crime.  In my room, that student would stay after school and wash all my desks.  This is a job that might take 10-15 minutes.  Writing on a desk, or on any other item, is not a terribly heinous crime, it is more a momentary lapse in judgment.  At some point in their childhood many of today’s upstanding citizens probably stooped to writing or carving their names into some surface.  If this sort of action is dealt with early, chances are it will never escalate into more heinous activities, such as tagging or seriously defacing public property.

The other element of this story that is problematic is the fact that the girl was arrested.  Some people in our society, including some parents, feel that if children get a taste of what it is like to be arrested early on they will be less likely to commit crimes.  Research shows that the opposite is often true.  Children who get a view of prison or prisoners up-close and personal, often start thinking that it is not really all that bad.  Years ago there was an approach called “Scared Straight” where young people were taken to prisons and told all of the terrors of life in prison, by the prisoners themselves.  It was thought that if prisoners told young people who were on a dangerous path just how terrible it was to be in their shoes they would change their ways.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Even though the program was touted as successful, and anecdotal evidence seemed to show promise, studies show that this was not true.  Studies not only showed that the program failed to deter crime, some showed that it may have escalated the incidence of it.

The best road to help children behave appropriately is to hold them accountable for their actions, teach them correct principles and behavior patterns and require them to make appropriate restitution for damage that they inflict.  This is true not only in school settings, but in family settings as well.

Response to Parenting Style quiz

On January 25th I posted the results of an online quiz that I took on identifying my parenting style. When my husband read the results he thought they were harsh, but clinically accurate. This parenting style is often described as the “no-nonsense workaholic” who is best at “emergency-mode parenting” and providing discipline where it is needed. Too often, however, strong-willed children eventually rebel against this parenting style if the parent doesn’t learn to balance expressive warmth with the authoritative discipline.

This does not sound like an ideal style to raising well-adjusted children. I thought long and hard about why my style is authoritative and yet we have had good results with our children. We have never had to operate in an emergency-mode. Rather the opposite has been our experience. When a strong structure is applied there tends to be less emergency-mode situations. Within our family guidelines we have a lot of flexibility. It is important to recognize the difference between authoritarian and authoritative. I really think the description for authoritative, as used in the quiz, describes authoritarian. I have been looking for a better (more accurate) definition.

Tonight I came across another blog that also discussed parenting styles. The author states: “Basically, there are four styles of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative (sometimes called egalitarian), permissive, and uninvolved.” I continued to read and found this gem in ther last paragraph: “Authoritative parenting is a balanced parenting style, with both high structure and high responsiveness. The parents are engaged and flexible, but they are still the parents. Structure rules, limits and boundaries is (sic) present, but not rigid.”

This is a much better definition than the one originally presented with the quiz.

For more details on a good article please visit http://motherguides.com/different-styles-of-parenting-which-one-is-best/

Teaching Behaviors without Values Leads to Failure

I had an interesting experience at the middle school where I teach that got me thinking about teaching kids to stay away from risky behaviors.  A teacher shared a letter with me written between two 8th grade female students.  The letter had some pretty explicit language about sexual experiences that these girls had been involved in.  Both girls commented that they didn’t think their parents cared if they had sex, just when and how they had it.  When I finished my conversation with this teacher I walked to another room where an 8th grade boy was having a conversation with a member of the school staff.  He explained to the staff member about a code of health that he followed based on his religious beliefs.  The staff member seemed shocked at the seemingly strict  code, but the boy seemed happy, almost excited, to follow the code.

These two contrasting incidents highlighted for me the importance of value based teaching.  Most parents want their children to abstain from sexual activity and dangerous substances.  Most parents teach their children to stay away from these things, at least while they are young.  Why then, do so many children become involved in risky behaviors at a young age?  The key is teaching values, not just behaviors. When children are taught that they should stay away from risky behaviors, but there is no underlying value to support their abstinence the pull to stay away is short lived.  The longest lasting lessons are those that are tied to stable belief systems and accountability checks.  Stable belief systems can be found in many religions and in some value-based organizations.  Those that require members to take an oath or promise, along with some system of accountability, are more likely to be successful.

So, if you want to teach your children to abstain, you will be more likely to find success if you tie those teachings to a stable belief system.