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Archive for the Category Success at School


Which school is the best fit for your son?

I get asked this question often. I don’t usually endorse particular schools – one reason being that I don’t visit or know them all that intimately. Also, they change over time depending on classroom make-up, types of students, cost issues, and administrators. Having said that, some parents seek out an education consultant if they are serious about private schools. It costs money to work with them – but it’s a great way to get the inside scoop on what programs might be a good fit for your son. Regardless, I think it’s best to visit schools, walk around, get a feel for things (not unlike what a college hunt process will be like down the road), and look mostly for these three things:

  1. Smaller, less crowded classrooms
  2. More male teachers
  3. Opportunities to sit less and break more and get regular physical movement all throughout the day

There are other important variables to consider too, such as hands-on learning, and less language-based instruction. However, sitting long hours is the real enemy for most boys in early education and why they get accidentally tagged as having learning or behavioral disorders.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Three Easy Back to School Tips

It’s hard to believe it’s that time again. As we aim to get the most out of our last days of summer, remember that your kids need more than school supplies to be ready for school. Here are three tips:

  1. Start easing back into the school schedule. It’s common to let bedtimes (and wake up time) slip during the summer, but if you don’t ease back into the school routine, you’ll have some very tired and cranky children on your hands. Start pushing bed time back to normal in short increments over a week or two, rather than a big change right before school starts.
  2. If your child is anxious about their first day back, do a “dry run”. Go visit the school and grounds a few times in the week or so leading up to school. Plan something fun afterwards. Just seeing the school under less stressful circumstances can help kids feel much more relaxed.
  3. Look for the warning signs that your child may be stressed. Younger kids show it differently than older kids. Younger kids will be more clingy, tantrum, may have problems falling asleep, and may complain of headaches and stomach aches. Older kids may become quiet, withdrawn, irritable, and more uncooperative. Then sit your kids down and acknowledge what’s happening. Tell them this is a tough time for everyone… parents, teachers, and especially kids. Just labeling it – giving it a name – will help.

What’s your tip for gearing up to back to school?

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Magic Inside and Outside the Classroom: What Harry Potter Teaches Us

If only going to school was as exciting as attending Hogwarts, the mythical castle in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. There, young wizards and witches can’t wait to start learning about all things magical, like deadly curses and advanced potion making. Unfortunately, the experience for non-magical children (Muggles, Rowling calls them) continues to be quite different. Being at school often means sitting long hours, listening to lectures, and facing a pile of standardized tests.

Of course, real kids can’t spend their days practicing spells (rather than spelling lists), or stopping evil forces from overtaking their cherished school of magic. Yet Rowling’s series reminds us that children are natural born learners and nothing can stop them in their quest for knowledge once they’re allowed to experience the mysteries of the world directly.

I recently visited a school where very young Muggles have this experience. There’s a new preschool, Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, at Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The children learn by doing, and their day is spent mostly outside. Even in winter, three to six year olds arrive bundled up. They begin each session outdoors, ready to explore snowy fields, and interact with a dynamic, living ecosystem. The children have purpose, are empowered to participate in chores, and help run a real farm.

Like Hogwarts, there’s magic and mystery that intrigues young developing minds. Consider learning about pollination and bees. Most children are taught to fear bees, but these kids seek out bee-covered plants, observe the busy activity of a hive, and get to see how pollen gets miraculously transformed into gooey sweet honey. They milk cows, collect eggs, churn butter, and then combine ingredients like potions to bake cakes and cookies. They observe tadpoles in a nearby pond and in the aquarium in their classroom, and watch them magically morph into frogs. Snakes and owls, animals that populate the pages of Rowling’s books, are also frequent visitors. In fact, there are a myriad of fascinating creatures from Wildlife visits that are tied in with a natural science curriculum.

The children read poems, write stories, and make art pertaining to all their amazing, but real experiences. Like Hogwarts, there’s also danger around every bend, poisonous plants like oak and ivy that the children identify and warn one other about. There are sad moments when animals die and miraculous moments to affirm life, like welcoming the recent births of lambs, kid goats, and a calf named Tilly.

These preschoolers are learning basic concepts of biology, chemistry, geography, and developing their math and language skills, but without the usual moans and foot dragging that we see in many American classrooms. These kids aren’t stuck indoors, required to sit and keep quiet all day, and they aren’t led through standard study guides or told to complete daily worksheets. During my visit, one boy brandished his collection of sticks at me, told me what trees they came from, and next to him was a girl who opened her hand to reveal seeds she was bringing back to their classroom. She told me she would plant them and they could watch the stages of how they grow. They collect rocks, twigs, feathers, pieces of fur, leafs, insects. One boy dragged an enormous branch from off the path. Wonderful! His teacher shouted. What leaves are those? Not the typical drop that – you might lose an eye.

Back inside their classroom, I see that the children have made a museum and laboratory of all the things they’ve collected from the great habitat around them. Lessons are designed around what these young explorers and scientists have discovered. I also watch them settle into lunch, have some reading time, play quietly, socialize, work on projects, but I’m equally struck with what I’m not seeing. Unlike most classrooms I’ve visited, there’s an absence of strong rules and discipline. A few boys are active and louder than most of the group, but they all seem focused, rested, and in good spirits having been outdoors.

I asked one teacher about this. “Sure,” she explained, “at the start of the year there are always a few challenges. But soon they settle in and really take to all the exciting activities. For whatever reason, we haven’t needed a time-out chair or behavior management charts.” What she told me fits with recent research. Children who get at least fifteen minutes of recess a day show fewer behavior problems. Further, in some cases, regular outdoor time reduces ADHD symptoms at levels similar to stimulant medication.

I drove away envying these young Harry Potters and the adventures in store for them in the days to come. The difference between fictional schools of magic and real-life learning needn’t be so great, I thought. The magic is all around us, right outside our doors and windows. Maybe classrooms need to get back to nature. There, they can recapture some of the enchantment that drives true learning.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Tough Mornings Ahead

We’ve turned the corner on summer. Soon, back-to-school ads will be popping up everywhere reminding us of the difficult transition this fall. Hardest hit are children. In one day, they go from unstructured outdoor play to classrooms with strict routines, sitting, and long lessons. Neurologically speaking, it’s very challenging for very young kids. It takes time for them to adjust. Here are some ideas to help families get ready for the start of school.

Good nights allow for better mornings

Biologically, shifting sleep cycles can be the hardest part of starting the new school year. Kids have to suddenly wake early, and keep to a strict morning schedule in order to get out the door on time. Sleep cycles in children adjust slowly. Don’t wait until a few nights before the start of school to set a reasonable bedtime. That’s like cramming for finals. Think a few weeks ahead, early to mid August. Mark the first day of school on your calendar and work back about three weeks. Shift bedtime gradually (15-20 minute blocks), and get to where you want by about one week before school begins.

Moving helps sitting

For kids, the end of summer means a substantial decrease in their healthy physical activity. This impacts boys significantly, and many girls, who won’t be getting the needed movement their young bodies crave. Consider exercise every morning. It will invigorate kids and help them let off steam before they are made to sit long hours indoors. Bet you can’t do 15 jumping jacks. Can you jump in place 20 times? How about dancing? Let’s practice your karate moves. Some kids have safe, small trampolines, or use small exercise balls to balance on. Set a timer to buzz when activity time is over, and reward with stickers for stopping and having a good transition out to school. Walk or bike to school and try to arrive early so kids can play outdoors before going in.

Studies show that boys diagnosed with ADHD do dramatically better if they get regular, vigorous activity throughout the day. The positive effects of physical activity and outdoor time seem to work as well as medications to bring down fidgeting and promote better focus in the classroom.

Low-tech mornings work best

Turn off computers, hand-held game devices, and no TV! They are strong neurological distractions, and pull kids into a zombie-like state that is near impossible to break from. Brushing your teeth can’t compete with Thomas the train or fighting aliens.

Be clear with your expectations, up on time, dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, shoes on and backpack ready… If everything gets done cooperatively, then a small amount of electronic play may be offered as a reward. If your child can’t break from high-tech entertainment, consider removing it for a few days or weeks and try again. You may find yourself calling their name repeatedly, and them responding just another minute endlessly. If there’s a tantrum or bad mood after shutting off electronic media, you have a problem. Your child might not be neurologically ready to shift gears from these highly arousing, fast-paced electronic games into the slower routines of morning.

One mom I know thinks of electronic device time as candy – fun to eat, but totally unnecessary to survive on, and in very large quantities, frankly unhealthy. There’s ample evidence that she’s right. Too much media and electronic playtime has been linked to childhood obesity, hyperactivity, and school and social problems. Dole it out in small amounts, and only after less stimulating, but necessary behaviors and routines are attended to.

Stop doing too much parenting

Caring parents can often do too much for their kids. They remind, cajole, and assist, while their kids foot-drag their way through the morning. Parents get stressed and rush themselves out of the house to rescue their kids from being late to school. Kids begin to feel ordered around and dig their heels. Everyone is tense and unhappy.

One solution is to step aside and let kids manage the consequences of their behavior. Ask someone at school to speak to your child when they arrive late. Teachers and principals are often willing to talk about why mornings are important, what didn’t go well, and strategize how to make things go better. Kids need to know that their teachers and classmates depend on them and that they are part of a community. If you over-assist, children are robbed of owning and managing their own behavior. Many children won’t make changes until they face real-life consequences directly, (e.g., catching an unappreciated look by their teacher, or making up time and work at the end of the day and hence loosing an opportunity to do something more fun that had been planned).

Use the power of rewards

Positives also work to help kids manage their mornings. Points can be earned for timeliness and better morning behavior. The points are then turned in for reasonable rewards later that day or week. One boy I know went from chronically late to arriving early to school. His parents broke down the morning into manageable chunks (i.e., wake up when called once, get dressed before a 10 minute timer rings, eat breakfast, brush teeth…) and he received a point for each if it was done with only one reminder. He knew his coveted computer gaming time that afternoon had to be earned, five minutes per each successful step achieved. He also did better when dealing directly with the consequences of his tardiness. He wanted his teacher to think well of him. His parents stopped nagging and doing too much in order to get him out the door. Telling him it was his choice if he was late (or on time) stopped the struggle and handed control to him.

Practice successful school behavior

The most common challenges at the start of school involve compliance. This happens mostly in younger boys who are not listening or following directions. The demands to sit quiet, wait turn, share, and keep hands and feet to oneself, go against how many boys learn. They prefer to learn by being assertive, active, competitive, and use their hands more than words. But alongside these active, hands-on learning styles, are other skills that boys need to practice – to hold back urges, communicate with others, and think things through before acting.

This is best rehearsed at home before kids enter school. Things at home are understandably more relaxed and comfortable than in a classroom setting, and in the summer months, more so. This unfortunately sets up youngsters, boys in particular, to be inattentive and hyperactive when they suddenly move into a rigid and demanding classroom environment. It’s like going from an amusement park into a museum. Kids need coaching and practice on the basics of good indoor classroom behavior.

I encourage parents to practice certain skills over the summer months. Listening and follow directions are tools just as important as books and pencils. Practice the following at home as much as you can. When I say your name look up. Keep looking at my eyes… good job… now I’m going to tell you to do something. Remember what it is because I’m going to ask you to repeat it back to me… Good job. Now, you’ll get a point if you can do it…ok?”

Making home a little more like school can be useful. I don’t mean teaching long lessons or making home a place focused only on academic achievement. I’m referring to behavioral expectations. That is, responding when we hear our name called, giving solid eye contact, trying to remember what is asked, and trying to follow through immediately. Getting that sequence down, through constant practice at home, can dramatically improve a child’s behavior at the start of school.

Final thoughts

Be realistic and acknowledge that the first few mornings may be tough come the fall. Validate the emotions your kids have that it’s difficult (even for you) to make a sudden shift between summertime and the long school year. But see it as a teachable moment. Recognize these early difficult mornings are part of how kids learn and make change. Learning always requires some mess-ups, missteps, and failures before new behaviors can take hold. Know that gains are usually made gradually.

Finally, stay positive. Don’t focus on what’s not going right, but what’s going better. Talk up the exciting and fun aspects of school each day, and make sure you plan special after-school events for the first few weeks. That will decrease the seriousness of back-to-school time and make a difficult transition a bit nicer for everyone.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Helping Young Boys Get Through School

This time of year brings many great things, but also seasonal stress. I’m not referring only to the holidays. After the first month or two of fall, many families contact me seeking advice on how to handle school stress. For young boys in particular, there is much frustration. A lot of what I talk about though helps all kids handle longer days and higher demands.

Is the honeymoon over? Across the country, young boys are becoming more frustrated at school. They’re tuning out and acting up. Teachers are suggesting evaluations for learning and behavior problems in record numbers, and parents are understandably worried. By the fall’s end, boys will be referred for psychiatric disorders and learning problems significantly more than at any other time of the year. Boys are also expelled from preschool more than any other group of children, four and one half times more than girls.

Despite these concerns, I urge moms and dads to hold tight and wait. I strongly recommend against rushing into a diagnosis or doing extensive evaluations. At very young ages, extensive evaluations aren’t very useful unless there are clear delays in a child’s developing language and communication skills. I also tell parents to avoid the big labels being bantered about, like ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. They don’t mean much over the long-term for such young kids. It’s better to investigate short-term speech and language therapies, occupational therapies, and behavioral parent training. These help guide and move development forward, positively.

Josh, The Outdoorsman
Recently, I met with a mom from Boston. She’d been repeatedly told that her five year-old was a serious problem at school. Josh wasn’t sitting still, asked too many questions, bumped into other kids, and played rough outside. When I concluded that Josh wasn’t the problem, she let out a long breath. Instead, I told her, the problem is a national one – fitting active boys into a narrow definition of education that goes against the grain of their normal development. Like the many parents I advise across the country, I told her to buy Josh time to grow and develop. She needed to stop seeing him through the eyes of everyone else, and start protecting what precious time he had left to be a little boy.

As we spoke, Josh was proving the point in my office. He was exploring, touching, moving freely about, laughing and engaging every one of his senses. He soon piled up a few toys and started in on imaginative play that involved loud dinosaur sounds and pushing objects one at a time off the side of my desk. He was experimenting with motion, repeating his play to find patterns, and fueling the experience with a pretend war between prehistoric creatures. This is how many young boys learn.

I could see how frustrating it would be for a bright and active guy like Josh to be subjected to standardized lesson plans and told what to do and how to learn for several hours a day. Josh was also built strong and fast. He needed to be outdoors and to get as much vigorous physical activity as he could handle. Josh came into the world with all the right stuff to learn on his own. Reading and writing and math would come later. For now, I told his mom, to have faith in the biological brain process that has served kids perfectly well for thousands of years. Don’t rush his development. It’s the foundation of his later learning.

Josh’s mom decided to change schools and enroll him into a program where kids spend most of their time outdoors learning through real-life experiences. These programs are more common in Europe and are gaining traction in some pockets of the US. This program is similar to the one described recently in a New York Times article (Forest Kindergarten at Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs). There’s also a terrific book I recommend to parents by Richard Louv, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder that explains the benefits of a nature approach to early learning. This isn’t a passing fad. Recent studies do in fact show symptoms of ADHD in boys are eliminated by spending time outdoors, and that the positive effects on their behavior are as good for some kids as stimulant medication.

Steven, Stuck Inside

There’s another boy named Steven, who also has been described by his teachers as being a problem at school. He’s in Kindergarten. His mom, a grade school teacher herself, approached me at a recent book signing in Southwest Florida. She lowered her voice as if someone might overhear our conversation.

“Its crazy,” she told me, “The administration actually dictates that every 15 minutes the kids have to move from one area of the classroom to the other, like they’re on a lazy-Susan. They have three lessons going on at once in the same room. Every 15 minutes they shift. It’s down to the minute without breaks in between. They’re not learning, I can tell you that! Steven comes home everyday bored and tuned out. He’s getting aggressive.”

I was shocked to learn of this approach. I’m an advocate of taking breaks. The Japanese model is a good example of this (see Class Breaks in Tokyo More Suited for Children). Grade school kids learn intensely, but are always give a solid break between lessons. It helps to digest the material. It helps adults too. When we separate from our work even for a few minutes, it gives our brains time to process and retain the new material. Any type of break is helpful. Listen to music, shoot a few baskets, take a brisk walk, read a few pages of your favorite book or magazine, or better yet, run around outside. Its what’s called distributed practice and cognitive scientists have long known it’s how good learning works. Cramming is never good for anything longer than a day or so.

I asked Steven’s mom, “There must be down time for them to play, at some point, right?”

“No,” she explained, “They took away recess to make more lesson time available. And they also took all the toys out of the classroom, the kitchen play area, all of it, to make room for these rotating groups.”

In my opinion, this is early education at its worst. In the interest of teaching equivocally and speeding up learning, we’re giving every kid the exact same experience like its fast food. It looks good but doesn’t leave you with much. Worse, we’re eliminating the very thing youngsters need in order to become better learners down the road – when the real academics arrive – free imaginative play and lots of hands-on exploration.

Contrast this with the outdoor preschool experience that Josh is now getting. It’s not for everyone, and not everyone can afford it, but I believe it’s the right model for preschool and kindergarten age boys, maybe for girls too. I wonder how young girls suffer silently in these classrooms. They’re more compliant and less physically active so they may not be tripping any switches. Girls also deserve to have a learning environment that plays to their strengths and builds upon their natural development.

Steven’s mom felt stuck. I told her that short of finding another school, there are a few things that would help. Recess and daily indoor breaks are a must. She should band together with other parents to demand this immediately. Also, bring the toys back into the classroom and encourage more free play. Other helpful changes would be smaller class size, hiring more male teachers (who encourage active physical learning), and most important, spending more time outdoors and giving breaks between lessons.

It’s disconcerting that Florida is following the national trend of moving children indoors and having kids become more sedentary. “It’s ironic,” Steven’s mom said, “We moved here because it’s where my husband grew up. He wanted Steven to have the great outdoor childhood he had when he was a boy.”

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.