Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reflections on 2015

I told myself I would post on this blog for a year. The year is almost over and so is this blog.

My experiences tutoring this year have reinforced some of my old ideas and opened my eyes to some current problems in education. 

  • Parents often feel they have no place to turn for guidance when their child has a learning difference. Tutoring may help a student if the parent finds one who is experienced teaching students with LDs. The goal should be remediation, not just helping with homework. Remediation requires time and commitment from the child and the family. Once a week after school is not enough to remediate a reading or math learning difference. Remediation in school also takes time and consistency.
  • Schools often expect all children to follow the same timetable of development. Unfortunately, not all children have been given the same memo. Some children need more time, more practice, or more challenges. Too often adults, despite the profuse amount of current brain research, see children as short, young people with grown-up brains. These adults, unfortunately, may be found in curriculum development, education administration, or politics.
  • School's reactions to LDs vary. Some schools do a great job with remediation. Some schools do a great job with appearing to remediate. Some schools don't even seem to be trying. 
  • Just as children differ in the rate of their development, each LD is  unique in each child. Leaning differences reside in children who have their own specific mix of intelligence, personality, strengths, culture, and family.
  • In 2001 David Elkind wrote the book The Hurried Child. It bemoaned a culture that rushes children to adulthood. Fifteen years later it appears that many schools have joined this mad scramble to some unknown finish line. Some children, bored with the pace of school, need the push. Others need time and smaller steps to be successful. Unfortunately, the pace required of many children allows them little time to savor childhood or the joy of learning.
So I plan to tutor less, create more, try some new journeys, and slow down my own
Taken on one of my journeys

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thinking about Preschool

"The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened . . . "  The New Preschool is Crushing Kids

Monday, December 14, 2015

I Don't Get It ... MATH HINTS

Below are some hints for helping a child who has difficulty with arithmetic. These are hints for a child who has hit the wall. A child who constantly says he hates math. A child who may have already failed a year of math.  She may demonstrate little or no awareness of the patterns in math, be unable to remember procedures, and see no relationship between numbers let alone the relationship between daily lessons. The suggestions below are not the way to teach a math class. They are for the individual child who needs more than after school tutoring at the local strip mall math center.
  1. Math is a subject that builds on past knowledge. Slow down and give a child time to play with and learn new knowledge before moving on. 
  2. Break a procedure into small components and see what a child is missing. If you are working with a child trying to learn how to add mixed numbers and she does not realize that when the numerator (number above the line) is larger than the denominator that the number is greater than one  -- you need to backtrack. 
  3. Working with fractions means heavy work with concrete items. I always have paper available and draw constantly when teaching fractions. Operations with fractions often produce numbers that don't make sense to a child. For example: multiplication of fractions produces a smaller number and division a larger one. This is counter intuitive for many children. Sometimes a child just needs different words to understand why this is so. A child might understand an explanation along with a physical representation showing that when we multiply a fraction we cut (don't use the word divide) the number by the number given. For example: 1/2 times 1/2 is cutting 1/2 into half making two 1/4s. Division of fractions is really asking how many 1/2s are in a half. There is only one, so the answer is 1. Having an explanation is magic for some children. For others it only confuses the issue, so a quick run-through explanation should be followed by the "how to get the answer procedure." A procedure may be all a child is able to deal with at the time.  
  4. For children who seem confused with working with numbers you might have them make number cards. Get blank playing cards and have a child put dots on the cards. Use at least ten cards to represent the digits 0 through 9.  The cards are set up so there are two rows of dots.  
    Example of child-made number cards
    Note: 9 is represented as three 3's and as 4 and 5
    Play with the cards. First have the child call out the number of dots as quickly as possible. Make a second set and play matching games with the cards, as well as memory games. What does this do? It helps children quickly recognize a pattern. Instead of calling out the number have the child call out even or odd.  This is a good game for 6-8 year olds who are having trouble with numbers or for the older child who isn't sure about evens, odds, or primes. I have seen children in 4-5th grade who really could not visualize a number. They may have been working on defining a prime number, but they could not tell if 22 was an even or odd number.  
  5. Help students learn how to figure out basics with their fingers.  This is to get a feel for the numbers and to use fingers quickly if needed. It is useful to a tactile learner. It is amazing how many children who are having difficulty in 2nd - 4th grade math have to count before they can hold up 7 fingers.
  6. Use number lines and hundreds charts to show patterns and the directionality of numbers. Some children find one more useful than the other. There are a number of activities  on the Internet on the use of number lines and hundreds charts. Start with the easier ones to see what you child knows. Point out patterns and how the numbers change in different columns.
  7. I create songs and stories to help students remember procedures. I have a great division song for the child who doesn't remember where the numbers go. I use stories when teaching a child how to regroup to add or subtract. Under a place value chart we place a street with houses or stores. Each house has an address and each place only accepts items grouped like their address. When we add, our house gets too full and we have to give some numbers to the neighbor, but only in a set of 10s or 100s.  Sometimes  one must go to a neighbor to borrow a ten when you subtract.  Later on in an addition problem one must return that ten.  I am sure mathematicians gasp in disgust at teaching math this way, but these students probably will not grow up to be engineers, mathematicians, or find any need for high level math. All they want to do is get out of 4th grade.
  8. Practical math usually is fun. Gardens, cooking, decorating a room,  or sewing, help a child use math. This is a good way to learn the concept of "measure twice, cut once".
  9. Use math terms with explanations.  I say: "look at the denominator, the bottom number, and tell me if it is the same as the numerator, the top number."  Using math terms with the explanation exposes the child to the terms, but helps them understand what you are talking about even if they don't know the vocabulary. 
  10. It is essential to understand a child's learning style. Some students need to draw things out for themselves, others find that confusing. Some need the reasons why, others need to slowly learn a procedure before learning why. 
  11. Teach the child how to use examples that are shown in the book. Some children don't understand what an example problem has to do with what is expected of them. Point out an example, show how it can be used as a model, and teach them how to create their own examples.  It they are unsure what to do with a problem such as 1/2 + x = 3/4,  show them that in the case of 5 + x = 9 it's easy to see that you take 5 from 9 for an answer of 4. I have found this way of understanding is often developmental, so while the 2nd grade student may not be able to generalize the knowledge, a 3rd grader might have an "aha!" moment.
Remember when people are having problems learning new material the ability to learn by just being there seems to vanish. The ability to refer to past knowledge seems frozen out of the brain by fear or confusion. Slow down.

One a different note:  I have written a chapter book for children who are having problems in school. Swute's Stories  is about a little mouse who didn't quite "get" school.  Fortunately his parents helped him find his special talent. Finding that talent took time but for the little mouse's happiness it was well worth the effort.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Places for Books

I recently read an article which complained that award-winning children's books are not being read. I didn't find that surprising since I have taken many groups of children to the library. From what I've seen, the award-winners are read, but not as much as the popular series such as Harry Potter, Unfortunate Events, and Captain Underpants.

Children and adults generally enjoy reading popular literature more than classics, and since children are just beginning to read there is a need to make reading enjoyable with popular material. While some children like to have these books read to them, most kids manage to plow through them on their own. Because these popular series  encourage the young reader to read more, they should be applauded. "Yes, but," we say, "we want to expose children to good literature." Well, for the younger child good literature probably needs to be read to them. That is a role for a parent or grandparent.  Reading the classics to children improves their vocabulary, their general knowledge, and their ability to understand good writing. Many stories in classics do move slower than those in popular literature, but having quiet time with an adult is worth the time spent. This is not to say that a child might not want to read The Secret Garden or Charlotte's Web on their own, but many do better if introduced to this type of reading by a parent. 

What about school? Should teachers be exposing students to classic literature?  Yes, they should, but teachers also have children read another type of book. I call these "chapter books filled with teachable moments".  One example is By the Great Horn Spoon!  My students enjoyed the book and I loved to teach it. Why? Because it gave children a chance to learn geography, history, and literary techniques. The book was about a little boy headed to find his fortune in California during the gold rush of 1849.  He lived in Boston and took a ship (as a stowaway with his butler) to the gold fields. What made reading in class different?  As each chapter was read, maps were pulled down, the Internet was searched for information about clipper ships, Patagonia was researched, and metaphors (which were abundant in this book) were explained.  Although it would be a great book for a child to read on her own, or for a parent to read to a child, we all know there would be no maps or metaphors referred to while the book was being read in that setting.

So perhaps we need to think of the multitude of settings in which children should be exposed to books. There are books to be owned: the cherished favorites.  Books to be borrowed and read, which is why we have libraries. Books for parents to read to their children. Books librarians read to small groups of children, (often these are the award winning books) - and books read at school. The book types may overlap, but the different settings all serve a function: helping children realize the joy of the written language, acquire the knowledge that can be gained, enjoy the delight of good art, and explore the world; its past and present and maybe even its future.

Monday, November 16, 2015

1+1 = ? Remember to Explain Your Answer

I am meeting more and more children who are having difficulty with basic arithmetic. Many of them are finding 1st and 2nd grade math difficult, if not impossible. Their parents are dealing with crying, frustrated, bewildered children. Parents, not sure of what the problem is, are turning to tutors for help. Often I find the child is struggling not with math but with language requirements. Many of these children can do simple arithmetic, but they can't explain how they do it. They also cannot explain how gravity takes them down a slide or explain the difference between the words a and the in a sentence. Children manage, however, to play on a slide and to use correct articles when speaking.

The new standards for math demand explanations. The mantra is, "We want students to understand math." One would hope that those who create tests reported to measure a child's "understanding" of a subject would themselves have an understanding of child development. 

There are many things in life a child does before being able to explain them. There are many things an adult does that he may have difficulty explaining. How many drivers can explain in detail what happen mechanically in a car when they hit the brakes? How many can explain the physics involved as the car stops?

A recent Atlantic article about the push for students to explain math was one of the few articles I have seen that discusses the problems some students have with this process. Although this article referred to middle school I have found that the push to explain one's answer starts in elementary school. Students on the autism spectrum, students with language problems, and students with delayed speech are put at a disadvantage when asked to explain, even with they can quickly and accurately find the answer to several of the same types of math problems.

Many younger children may not have yet developed the thought process which gives them the ability to explain the abstract. Some young students have problems with the eye hand coordination needed to circle or created the tiny lines and blocks needed to show regrouping in addition and subtraction. It is important to allow children to use concrete items when learning arithmetic. The fact that many children need these items makes one question their ability to then verbalize let alone write about an abstract algorithm. The other reality is that sometimes it is very difficult to explain in words something very simple. Some ideas are so simple that it takes a philosopher to make it convoluted through an explanation. 

Too often teachers are asked to encourage math discussions with children who get confused by the various suggested methods. While middle schoolers may have an aha moment when a peer discusses a math shortcut, a 7 year old may tune out because they haven't mastered the method, and don't have a true foundation to understand shortcuts.

Some students hit a math wall when introduced to fractions. Others hit a wall when introduced to algebra. I would be interested to see how many are hitting the wall when learning addition and subtraction today compared to a few decades ago.

There are many adults who claim to be "bad at math." Because of demands placed on them to "understand the math," some children who may get the process, and later with practice and maturity might understand the underlying concepts, decide early on that math is too hard. What good does it do to work one's way through a math problem, get the correct answer, and then be deemed ignorant because you can't give an adult explanation of how you got that answer?

We are not even going to touch the problem of children who can explain what they did in math (perhaps through memorization) and get credit for that explanation; but who seldom get the correct answer to a basic arithmetic problem. While it is true they will be using calculators someday, one wonders at the ability to explain without the ability to produce.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Teaching vs. Paperwork

Many years ago I went back to school to get certified to teach special education. In the U.S. teaching certification credentials are given by each state, but much of special education consists of following ....  federal laws! So a majority of the class time was focused on learning the national laws that apply to this field. What I received for my time and money was a brief overview of the various teaching methods one might use in the various types of special education, and an in-depth study of the federal laws that apply to special education students.

When I completed the course of study and satisfied the other requirements, I decided to look for a job. After checking out several public schools I decided to teach in a private school. Why? Because at that time I wasn't not impressed at the working conditions for special education in public schools. Most of the resource rooms I checked out consisted of many children going in and out while the resource teacher (also expected to deal with behavior problems that might arise in other classrooms) helped them with modified work. There was very little time for remediation and interruptions were more common than those in the regular classroom. I am sure there were some excellent resource rooms out there, but obviously the teachers in those situations decided to stay put. I spend almost ten years in a private school for children with learning differences. My classes never exceeded eleven students. When I started working at that private school the focus was on the children's needs, and the school had a successful record of remediation as well as modifications.

Special education in the public school still seems to have its problems. This article attributes the difficulty in finding and keeping special education teachers to  the large amount of paperwork required.  People who love to teach seldom make enough money to hire an admin assistant. That causes the reams of paperwork that accompany teaching a child under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to fall into the teacher's workload. It also means that the teacher realizes that if anyone may be sued, due to a parent's dissatisfaction on how their child is being or not being taught, it usually includes the teacher. This is one reason certification for special education focuses on how to fill out paperwork rather than how to teach. Finally large amounts of paperwork and meetings are two reasons that many qualified teachers (teachers who may have been excellent at working with children with special needs) leave the field fairly quickly. Thus schools find themselves unable to comply with the federal mandate requiring certified special educators.

Because of the establishment of  IDEA there are many children receiving an education in public school who would have been sent home 50 years ago. There is a now place in schools for children with physical, mental, emotional, and learning differences. There is an expectation that these children can learn.  But in an effort to be all things to all children the in-the-trenches art of teaching is being watered down. I understand the need for paperwork in an attempt to insure that the intent of the law is followed - although many a parent with an excellent Individual Education Plan (IEP) in their file cabinet will tell you that they doubt that the plan is really being followed. But an over abundance of paperwork, schedules, and due dates means that less attention can be giving to the act of teaching. Good teachers lose the joy of teaching, good schools find themselves unable to meet federal mandates for certified special education teachers, and students . . . well, too many students find themselves unable to read the paperwork that assures them their individual needs will be met.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Still Learning

Recently I signed up for an Internet Spanish course.  It seemed a bit like buying a lottery ticket, although I probably have a greater chance at winning the lottery than learning another language. Having sat through numerous college classes, viewed foreign TV marathons, taken adult ed, made friends who speak no English, I still do not know another language. When I lived outside the U.S. my new friends and neighbors, seemingly through their acquaintance with me, learn enough English to discuss Plato. Despite all my efforts, when I left their country I could say yes, no, and order a glass of wine.

For my next attempt to learn a new language I selected a self-paced course through fluencia.  The first few lessons are free but then I have to pay. I hesitated, decided I needed a challenge, and spent the money. What did I learn? Well, yes I am learning that while I am still terrible at languages I can pick up a bit of Spanish. But this endeavor is reminding me of some teaching truths:
  1. It helps when materials are presented in more than one way. The method fluencia uses is basically: hear it, see it, try it, repeat it.  Too often we do not give children several ways to learn a topic. Just listen! we tell them. "Are you listening?" we ask when they don't quite get it.  Well, I listen but it sure helps me to see it, too. 
  2. Speaking of listening. I am amazed at the simple things I forget that I just heard and saw. I find myself forgetting something that I supposedly learned two minutes ago. When children are learning new information, even when they are paying attention, sometimes they forget. As adults we tend to forgo things that are difficult. We then forget how the brain reacts to learning difficult new material.
  3. Old knowledge helps. The fact that I know what an article or infinitive is helps me recognize some of my mistakes. Past knowledge often helps children learn new material.
  4. Old knowledge hinders. I tend to want to type the Spanish word cu├ínto with a qu. The kw sound is wired into my typing fingers as a qu.  The child who learns something incorrectly such as writing "sed" for "said" has to work doubly hard at losing the habit.
  5. Learning strengths are deceptive. I think that I have a good auditory memory. Actually I have a great memory for conversations. When I was a journalist I seldom took detailed notes because I could remember exact words spoken. I realize when attempting to learn Spanish that my auditory memory depends on context. Just because a child can memorize a poem, Pokemon cards, or name 50 dinosaurs does not mean he can easily remember all the vowel sounds.
  6. Small steps also help. So do hints. When given a word bank (a set of words) I can arrange then into a coherent answer to a question given in Spanish. Ask me to just answer the question without giving me some words to use and the results are not nearly as coherent. Having the word bank  is a good step in the right direction. It helps me realize that I am learning. It does not mean, however, the material has been learned.  I will not always have a word bank and must venture out on my own. Yes, word banks can be a helpful modification for children with LDs, but they need to be weaned away from them.  Life seldom provides modifications. 
  7. Rewards help. Just seeing that I am on a 7-day learning streak makes me determined not to break it. This is not a major reward for children so stickers, checks, etc. do have a place in education. Having skin in the game also helps. I paid for a year long course and remind myself not to waste money. This helps me force myself to try the exercises every day. Children are sent to school. Despite what we tell them most really haven't invested anything to be there. So remember the rewards.
  8. Repetition is essential. When I am learning something difficult I need to have the ability to go back and review constantly. As a adult I select the areas I need to repeat. For some children the chance to decide what to review would delight them, giving them the opportunity to be in charge of their learning. Most children, however, don't know what they forgot so ongoing review of everything is essential. Often children are rushed through a skill. They may say "Got it," but without repetition and practice the new skill is never really learned. It is essential that children who need time to learn material have that time. 
  9. Long breaks don't help. A short trip out of town interrupted my learning. Getting back in the habit was difficult. Children with LDs often show regression after a four-day weekend. The summer break can be devastating to their learning.
I believe adults benefit from the experience of learning something difficult every now and then. It can be a physical or mental challenge, but it needs to be outside of the circle of things that are easy. The lessons learned help our interactions with children and get us out of any self-imposed ruts. It is a great gift to our children and to ourselves.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Education's Paradox: All or Nothing?

When a child is having difficulty in school parents are faced with a paradox. Most people in the U.S. agree that all children are entitled to a "good" education. All children currently add up to almost 50 million public school students taught by over 3 million teachers. Because our population is so diverse it is becoming more difficult for teachers to give special attention to all who need it.   

All parents want their child (who is one in 50 million) to have a great teacher. This would mean of the three million teachers working we hope they are all experienced, intelligent, loving, knowledgeable, excellent teachers. Oh, and these excellent people should ignore better paying jobs. And ignore anyone questioning better pay for teachers because they get so much time off. This, of course, is from people who declare they would go crazy staying home all day with their own children. 

These excellent teachers should forgo jobs with better working conditions and dedicate themselves to students who may be hungry, angry, tired, noisy, or perhaps even . . . creating discipline problems. It has been reported that in a single year 145,100 public school teachers have been physically attacked by students and another 276,700 had been threatened with injury by a student.

Classrooms may include students who don't speak English, have emotional, physical, or learning differences, or who simply don't want to be at school. And it is not just the teacher's efforts and attention that has to be divided among these students. Your child may be distracted in a classroom by students working diligently at getting attention: negative or positive.

So worried that your child isn't on grade level, or may have a Learning Difference, or is just really unhappy at school, you may decide to check out private schools. This of course requires money, availability, and often the realization that while private schools claim to be selective - dollars hold sway here, too. And while some great teachers may love the idea of smaller more disciplined classes, others cannot or will not take the pay cut. Of course, some private school have larger, or less disciplined classes than some public schools.

If you find yourself staying awake nights wondering what to do about your child's K-5 education there are a few things to ponder:
  1. If you had one or two days of problems but most of the year things have been going well -- relax. Everyone has good and bad days -- in childhood and adulthood.
  2. If there is a physical danger to your child or he is consistently beaten down emotionally put all your efforts in finding another place: private, home or another public school. It can be done.
  3. If you are worried about the academic content, but feel that overall school is OK, supplement. Get a tutor,  find supplemental material for your child to work on during the summer or on a few weekends a month. Remember museums, zoos and libraries have classes for children. Do research before and during vacation trips to teach your child history and geography.  Show her how to make change or measure a room for a rug. Cook with your child.  Talk about important ideas with other adults in front of your child. Read, read, read to your child.
  4. If you are worried that your child is has a learning problem talk to her teacher about getting your child tested. Join a group that will walk you through the process of getting help in a public school. Find a tutor with experience teaching children with learning problems. Research the Internet to see what is available. Check this Pinboard for ideas on how you can help your child.
Remember there is no perfect school for your child. There is not a perfect school for any child. We all learn to live with imperfections. Acknowledge any big problems, take care of them, and don't sweat the small stuff.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reflections on Closure

Lately, I have been seeing a number of children who appear to have difficulty with closure. I am not referring to the popular idea of getting closure after some tremendous, or not so tremendous, trauma; but rather the inability to fill in the gaps of a visual or auditory experience. Visual closure is "the ability to recognize an object as a whole when only parts are shown."   Auditory closure is the ability to understand a word or sentence when hearing only a part of it.  A child who has difficulty with one or both of these abilities often has difficulty in school.

Sight words are difficult to learn for a child who finds it problematic to recognize a word without taking conscious note of each individual letter. Many of these children dutifully sound out words such as cat, and, and in while their peers are blithely reading quickly and fluently. Problems with auditory closure may make it difficult for a young child to obey directions, or to follow a story that is being read to a group.  A child with auditory and visual closure problems may find school expectations overwhelming.

If your child is having difficulty in school and testing for a learning difference has been suggested, visual and auditory closure  problems may be diagnosed.  While there are children for whom this is a major problem and require professional help, some children just have to be shown what is expected.

Children can be pretty concrete when it comes to academics. When learning to write, a child may question what number a non-perfectly written 2 is.  Adults then sigh and correct their writing but often just asking a child "what number do you think it is?" helps the child realize that slight differences don't change the reality of numbers or letters.

Although some children have extreme problems with closure, many just need some explanations and practice on these skills. Books with rhyming words, (nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss, etc.) have a pattern that most children pick up from repeated hearing. Pointing out the obvious helps the child who doesn't seem to be able to predict that fish might rhyme with wish.  Adding why to a short question requires your child to expand her answer.  Modeling expected answers also helps some children.  The talkative child may learn to hold back a bit and the shy child may learn to answer in more than one word. 

Visual closure may be helped by copying a picture, a word or a sentence. Pointing out which letters go above or below a line is useful to some children. Boxing a word to emphasize the shape of the letters may help.  

There are electronic games that help a child learn about closure, but more important is the act of playing.  Running, jumping, playing outdoors, making up games with one's friends, settling arguments without adult help, all these activities help a child understand the world.  Taking a child to a museum, pointing out new things, using vocabulary, reading to a child, and demanding that a child at times calm down, watch, listen and learn helps children to understand how they learn.  Experience helps with closure. 

Remember school is a place where children are taught to think in a specific manner.  All stories must have a beginning, middle and end.  Most of today's children's stories have predictable happy endings. Math problems require that all work be shown even if we can do the easy stuff in our heads. We ask children "what do you think the author meant," but a child may hesitate answering because they think, "I am not the author so I really don't know what he meant." We expect children to give exact answers in a specific manner but not until they get older do we explain to them that there is more than one answer. Some children just need to be told that there is a specific way to do things in school and it isn't worth the effort to argue about it.  There will come a time when they will have more choices and more power.

I have a feeling most of us originally saw the world through different eyes -- but the group activity of school narrowed our vision.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Quiet Please

Recently I went whale watching. On the deck of the small boat I observed a young mother who was obviously enchanted with her baby. Now, the best thing for humanity is having mothers enchanted with their offspring, but the game these two were playing didn't bode well for the future likability of this child. The baby would scream at the top of his lungs, mom would laugh and reply with a softer scream, and the baby would scream again. I always wondered why so many children seem to love to hear themselves scream. I had no idea they were encouraged to do this. 

One might think that children enjoy noise; after all they often are pretty noisy. Many adults don't enjoy the loudness of a large group of children but few people think that perhaps there are children who don't enjoy the constant activity and noise created by their peers. Most of us forget that there are children who hate noise. There are children who have a difficult time concentrating in a noisy environment. These children are highly stressed by noise. Some of those stressed children are the ones making the noise. However, most children who dislike noise are the quiet ones.

In this world where children are not only seen but heard and heard and heard, it is getting more and more difficult to find an oasis of silence. Libraries have become interactive community centers, full of the sounds of video games, talking, and arguments. Schools encourage cooperative learning where every one works in groups and discusses what to do. More and more parents of young children complain of how loud their child's classroom has become. Some children have difficulty hearing the teacher over the pandemonium let alone concentrating on learning new skills. 

Leaving the school grounds doesn't make it better. Has anybody tested the decibel level on a school bus full of children? After school many children spend a few hours in a cacophony of children's voices at daycare. Some children's evenings are spent playing sports while hearing the roar of a crowd. Others go home to the constant background noise of siblings squabbling or TV. We have a difficult time providing a moment of silence in many children's lives.

I am not saying we should expect complete silence from or for children.  But .... today there seems to be fewer and fewer quiet places for children. Children sometimes need to hear their own thoughts. Some children are extremely sensitive to their environment. They easily become overwhelmed by odors, sights, or sound. They need a quiet place to unwind. Others have the type of personality that needs time to work alone with only their own ideas for company. This article about introverts explored not only the need for silence for the introvert but also the need for quiet in the life of an active extroverted child.  The hyperactive child's frantic behavior  is often exacerbated by the noise and activities of our everyday life.  

Parents should be their children's advocate. If possible put your child in a school that has a balance of quiet and noisy activities. Have a quiet hour in the house when no machines are running (washer, dryer, TV, computer).  Go for a quiet walk with your child outside. If it is obvious that your child needs some down time, limit after school activities or select activities that take place in a quiet environment. Stillness is a welcomed gift in this busy world.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Long?

When a child is diagnosed with dyslexia one of the first questions parents ask is, "How long will it take before she can read?" The question may not be this specific. It may be, "How long before school won't be as hard?" or "... before he won't be as confused? or, "...before she can write a coherent sentence?" No matter the words, parent would love to have a specific amount of time remediation will require. There is no set answer. There are, however,  several factors to consider when looking at remediation.

Assuming that one has selected the correct type of remediation, the first factor is the severity of  the problem.  Is it a problem that can be fixed by learning the sound-symbol relationships or is there a combination of problems? For example, does your child's diagnosis include spatialmemory, auditory, or visual processing problems? Some of these problems can be worked on simultaneously, but usually the more problems, the greater amount of time is needed for remediation.

Many children with dyslexia also have ADHD. This may mean a need for medication. It does mean a need for consistency and patience. A child who has a difficult time focusing on new knowledge and skills usually requires a longer time for remediation.

I know there are controversies about  IQ, but IQ affects learning. A low IQ makes it more difficult to learn new methods or to apply them to new material. An eager, able problem-solver with a mild LD will usually get through remediation quicker than a child with a below average IQ . Of course, children with high IQs often find their own way to hide an LD and may be more difficult to identify. Children with low IQs may be easy to spot, but the IQ is often blamed for the reading difficulty rather than looking for an LD.

What else effects remediation? Oh yes, personality. Actually not personality, but how the child applies himself during remediation. A stubborn child may decide she is going to learn this remediation thing no matter what, or she may decide to fight it every step of the way. A precise, detail-oriented child may eagerly apply this new method to tackle reading or get so bogged down in the details that he can't see the holistic application. Happier children tend not to pout or get depressed at lack of progress. They have the added advantage of being easy to work with, which helps the teacher maintain long time enthusiasm. Drama queens; children who engulf themselves in their emotions, often put a great deal of energy into emoting rather than learning.

A child who wants to learn tends to do better than a child who is apathetic or resists learning. One tool to see if a child is eager to learn to read is to ask them their favorite subject at school. Most kids say lunch or recess. The thoughtful child who says her favorite class is science, history, math, or some other academic subject usually is an eager student. This becomes a cyclical pattern which means an eager student creates an eager teacher who in turn encourages the student. A difficult child needs a very special person for remediation.

So how long will it take? Think about how quickly your child learns new things. Is he is an active or passive learner? Does she want to read? Is he persistent? Is she focused? Are her LDs severe? Be realistic in your assessment and realize that this task is a difficult one that requires stamina, optimism, and determination. Most children with LDs cannot take long breaks from the remediation process. 

Unfortunately, sometimes a chosen remediation process is not the correct one and must be changed. Parents worry, may feel overwhelmed, or get annoyed at the amount of time needed. Modeling high standards, patience, and optimism helps you and your child. Remember, you and your child have more going for you than this learning difference. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

How Many Hours of Sleep Does a Child Need?

On a recent  trip that crossed several time zones and included three really early flights, I became very aware of how lack of sleep affects a person. Sometimes we forget how important sleep is, not only for an adult, but for a child.

School has started for most children in the the U.S. As parents buy school supplies, post schedules, and meet the teachers, one area many parents forget is their child's sleep schedule. Children often stayed up late during the summer months. Suddenly school starts and morning comes too quickly for many young students. This does not include just the  first few days of school. Far too many children do not get the ten or eleven hours of sleep needed by elementary school students. What happens to these tired children?

Unfortunately, some of them end up sleeping on the bus or during the first hour of class. Teachers then have the choice of sending a child to the nurse to get some needed shut eye or waking the child or watching to ensure she doesn't fall out of her chair. Every year I taught I had at least one child who came to school so exhausted he had to be sent to the nurse to catch up on sleep. 

The less obvious reaction is a child who becomes more hyper as the day progresses. These children become so active they find it impossible to learn or behave after lunch. They are easily upset and often remember very little of their afternoon.

Other sleep deprived students have problems learning. They make mistakes and find it difficult to pay attention. Any problems created due to learning differences come out in full force when the child is tired. The dysgraphic child, who can with effort and concentration produce a readable sentence, suddenly writes with chicken scratches. The dyslexic child finds it impossible to read or comprehend. The ADHD child is totally unable to focus - even with medication. Usually the younger the child the more reactive the response to lack of sleep.

But, the parent responds, I can't get my child to go to sleep at night. There are a number of things to do to help you child get the shut eye she needs. Have a routine every night. Ban TV or electronic devices at least an hour before bed.  In fact, after dinner avoid all stimulating activities. (I know some children participate in sports that go way beyond bedtime. Parents need to form groups to deal with sports organizations about late elementary school night games.) Make sure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature. Keep the house quiet after a child has gone to bed. That means older siblings and adults have to be aware and considerate of the loudness of music, phone calls, computers, or conversations. 

If a child is on medications that make it difficult to sleep, talk to the pediatrician. If a young child has a day packed with too many activities, cut back. I am sure most adults know the feeling of being so tired one can't get to sleep. On the other hand, all children need some physical activity, preferably outdoors, so try to insure your child doesn't spend most days totally inside. Remember  "A well spent day brings happy sleep." -   Leonardo Da Vinci

Some children are worriers and some family situations promote worry. Try to help a child understand that it isn't his job to worry about adult problems. Get help if your family is being overwhelmed by such problems.

Everyone has a late night now and then. It is a continuous lack of sleep that exacerbates school problems. If your child is really having difficulty at school, remember to check how much sleep they are getting. Ten or eleven hours of sleep can make a world of difference in your child's world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Two weeks

I will not be posting for a couple of weeks. Check out the topics on the right under labels for specific previous posts. Future articles will cover sleep, how ADHD affects learning, and communications with your child's teacher.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Speaking of Curriculum

I liked this article because it showed that research indicates content and practice may be the most important part of lasting education. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Math Education Rant - Part 2

What Can be Done 

The previous post Math Education Rant - Part 1 divided young math students into three groups: the top students for whom math makes sense and is generally pretty easy, the middle students, usually the majority of a class, and the poor students who find math extremely difficult. My opinions about math education in elementary school take into account all three groups.
  1. Maria Montessori based her educational methods on child development. She understood the prerequisites for a child to be ready for math (and other subjects) in a classroom. Her prerequisites were "First a child has established internal order, Send the child has developed precise movement. Third, the child has established the work habit. Fourth, the child is able to follow and complete a work cycle. Fifth, the child has the ability to concentrate. Sixth, the child has learned to follow a process. Seventh, the child has used symbols." Once a child reached this maturity of mind and a readiness to work, it was time for them to work with concrete math materials. There are far too many students who start kindergarten without these prerequisites. These children need to be given time and a curriculum to make sure they have "a readiness to work." 
  2. Speaking of time, there is a continuous pushing down of the curriculum. When five-year-olds are expected to do first grade work we are pushing them to learn concepts they may not be developmentally ready to learn. There are complaints about the number of students who require remedial math classes when they start college. Perhaps if children were given time to learn at the beginning of their academic careers, they wouldn't need as much at the end. I have seen first graders who were having difficulty with double-digit addition. When tutoring these children it was apparent that they were still having trouble identifying written numbers such as 11 or 12!
  3. Most children in elementary grades need concrete materials to help them understand abstract ideas. Using Unifix blocks, Cuisenaire rods or other math materials needs to be a continuous activity. One day of demonstrating a concept doesn't give children enough time to work through the process on their own. Many teachers stop the use of concrete items in the upper elementary grades, but most children still need concrete items to understand fractions and decimals.
  4. Teachers need to understand that manipulating concrete items like beads, while necessary for young children, doesn't mean the children transfer that knowledge to the abstract symbols of numbers. The symbols need to be taught with the items, but that still does not mean a child will totally understand an abstract concept. 
  5. In a effort to insure that children "understand" the underpinnings of math we overwhelm them with explanation. Some children who might be good at math are hindered by this overuse of words. An explanation of how to do a complicated process, even with a demonstration, is very difficult for some young children to understand. Requiring students, themselves, to explain the process is even more difficult if they have poor language and/or writing skills.
  6. While in theory teaching a child more than one method to do basic arithmetic sounds good, that approach adds a layer of confusion to some children. They may decide to combine the methods, and do so incorrectly, or never thoroughly learn any one method. Adults may readily see how the methods are related, but an eight-year-old may not have the language, or cognitive ability to see this.
  7. The visually busier the page (lines, boxes, circles) the more difficult it is for some children to comprehend what they are suppose to do. Lattice multiplication is an example of this. I have tutored children frustrated by required lattice multiplication because the spaces were too small for their large handwriting. A child with visual perception problems can even be confused by graph paper!
  8. Some children need more time to learn than others. We have no problem understanding a young child wanting to hear the same book read again and again. We need to give the children who need it time for repetition, or a break to do something else, and then come back to the concept. I worked with classes of children who had difficulty with math (as you can see in the example I gave in Part 1) Parents raved at the progress their children made in my class. I often felt it was just lucky that I taught a child the year he or she was finally able to understand the lessons. When I tutor I meet young children who obviously can't understand something (glazed eyes, a look of panic and complete confusion, etc.) who three months or even three weeks later find it suddenly makes sense. Educators have to be aware if something is beyond a student's ability at a given time. If we can't give an elementary school age child the necessary time, there is something extremely wrong with our education system.
The above eight points concern the need to look at children's ability to learn rather than what is being taught. Too often curriculum ignores the learning differences in children, the various developmental stages of the young student, and the variation of abilities in the new student. The next paragraphs concerns how to implement teaching a curriculum to groups of young children. 

I had the privilege to do student teaching in a school with an excellent math program. The entire school (k-5) had math the first period. The math curriculum had been divided into weekly modules. Each module had a pre- and post test. This allowed a child to test out of a module. The school had specific teachers who worked with children who had to repeat a module. Repeat modules tended to include more hands-on materials and more individual attention. Because everyone had math at the same time, the student who tested out of a module could move up right away. Math classes might consist of children in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. A child who found math easy was not held back, but still could repeat a module when she came to material that gave her difficulty. A student who might have difficulty in subtraction could still move up if he found it easy to measure perimeter. Some modules were reviews of pre-requisite skills for new concepts. 

The children seemed to love math. The math-adept second graders got to go to class with fourth graders. All children knew that if they didn't "get something" they would have a chance to try it again. No one seemed to feel bad about having to repeat a skill because everyone had to repeat now and then, and you got a different teacher when you repeated a module. Worksheets tended to have large print, simple instructions, and plenty of white space since there was a limited amount of material and it was understood that there might be very young children in a class with subject matter often taught only to older children.

The U.S. tends to have a math curriculum that is very broad (many topics) and fairly shallow (not much depth to each topic.) Modules allowed students to get the depth they needed.  I am not suggesting that all schools use this method but I believe elementary schools should have math programs based on the idea that children need to be able to work at different speeds and move up or down at their own pace. The emphasis should be on children and how they learn, rather than on speeding through a curriculum, holding children back who could readily move ahead under the guise of saying, "Why those children learn while they are helping others," and refusing to recognize that individuals might find some areas of math easier than others.  Such a program would give all children a change to get a firm foundation to build on, rather than a shaky platform to start middle school. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Math Education Rant - Part 1

I just finished reading an article about classes created to help parents help their children with Common Core math homework. I also read the comments following the article. My reaction to the comments are the reason for this post.

Every few years the U.S. decides we need to change the way math is taught. This is said to be a response to students doing poorly of some national or international test. (It is seldom mentioned that changing a curriculum is a huge financial gain to those who sell curriculum, but that is fodder for another post.) 

Anyway, with the change new books and materials are purchased, websites are formed and subscribed to, schools pay consultants to train the teachers, and finally the new program is presented to the students. Ten years later it is discovered that some students are doing poorly in math and the process starts again. As the quality of children's understanding of math is bemoaned in the media, comments come in from math authorities (often engineers or other professionals who use math in their jobs) who insist that: 1. Math is easy, 2. Elementary teachers don't know how to teach it, and 3. It is a shame that young people can't make change anymore. As a teacher I have observed the following:
  • There are some children who find working with math to be a wonderfully ordered process. They see the patterns, think math is an easy subject, and will learn and understand math regardless of how it is taught and who teaches it. These students easily learn whatever method is taught to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, grasp the concepts, and utilize their own shortcuts.
  • The next group of students are the majority, who get through math class in the elementary grades with a bit of work. Some things come easily, some take a bit more work. Some of these children love math class and some hate it. But they get through it and have the ability to work with basic arithmetic before tackling algebra. 
  • Finally we have a group of children who find math extremely difficult, if not impossible. Some of these students have dyscalculia, some have other learning differences (LDs), some have cognitive disabilities, but math to them has no logic. Every math class is a new day with no connection to material presented the previous day.
Let's look at how arithmetic may be presented to this student.
Example: 221-35 = 

  1. Old math: We borrow one from the two next to it then subtract the 5 from 11, change the 2 to one, borrow from
    the next 2, subtract 3 from 11,  etc.
    See example 1. below
  2. Newer old math. Regrouping - Same as borrowing only we show the place value concept so we don't borrow one, we borrow ten, (and 100) but the problem looks the similar to the first example with more changing
    numbers on the top 
    See  2.
  3. New math: See example 3. Understanding numbers - It is easier to subtract a zero so we round up the 35 to 40 and because it is easier to subtract 20 we first subtract 20  and then second twenty from 201 and add five to  181 giving us the 186 answer or one can subtract 30 from 20 for 191 and subtract five to get 186
So what does the really poor math student do? (The first time I saw a 4th grade student do this I was amazed. The second time I almost cried.)  221 - 35  =    Hmmm . . .  Can't take five from one but I can take 1 from 5,  and can't take three from two, so 3 minus 2 is 1 and two minus nothing is two, ergo the answer is 214! (This student is so happy to get through an easy problem without having to round, think about place values, write funny numbers on top, or subtract more than once that the thought of just looking at the answer and logically thinking it has to be less than 200 doesn't even make a blip on his radar.)

Of course the adult who found math easy rolls his eyes and blames the teacher. (This adult usually has a child who also finds math easy and has never enjoyed the experience of working with a child who sees math as the seventh circle of Hades.) The teacher sighs and works with the child using demonstration, questions, and maybe even concrete materials. The child nods and suddenly seems to remember that yes, we did do something like that last year. He dutifully corrects his work (with no real understanding of it) but if he doesn't have to subtract for the next few days he reverts back to old habits. So what can be done?

Next Post: What Can be Done 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Grade Level?

When I was a classroom teacher one of the most common questions I heard was, "Is my child doing grade level work?" Often a parent would be more specific asking questions such as, "Is my child reading on grade level?"

I understand the reason for these questions because when my child was young I remember comparing his work to the other work posted in halls and bulletin boards. Most standardized tests also include a grade level score which compares children to others in the state or nation. So what influences a grade level expectation? When you think about grade levels remember:
  • Although we think of grades being synonymous with age, in the U.S. a first grade class may have children ranging in age from 5 - 8.  How does that happen? Birthday cut off dates are determined by the states, and people move. Some parents talk a school into letting a child in early. Other children must repeat first grade or kindergarten so they are at the high end of the age range. 
  • A child's classmates often influence the instruction level in the class. While it is true that teachers follow curriculum, the behavior and academic ability of the children always influences what is being taught and how it is presented. A child who goes from kindergarten to 5th with a disorderly group of children who entered school already behind in basic skills, receives a different education than one who takes classes with mannerly, well-prepared classmates. 
  • The U.S. does not have a national curriculum. Moving to another state, or even another district may mean your child is ahead or behind her classmates.
  • Teachers hate to define the grade level of most children. They may have experienced two extreme reactions from parents. One reaction is absolute denial and excuses. The other reaction is extreme activity to correct the situation: various therapies, tutors, requests for more homework, etc. These reactions tend to make many teachers tread lightly.
  • Teachers tend to be optimistic about the gains a child may make during the year. Often a verbal child is rated higher than his or her test scores indicate. Teachers may feel sympathy for the sweet child who tries to do well in class.  Sometimes a teacher is aware that a child is anxious (due to a home situation) which influences scores. A new teacher may not have the experience to really say what an  "average" child should be able to do. A long term teacher may have had too many good surprises from supposedly poor students to want to label a child too early.
  • The term "grade level" ultimately means a child is able to function in a specific grade. This is different than subject matter competence. A child may be able to read fairly well, or do math very well, but is unable to function very well in the group environment that is public school.
So should parents ignore the idea of grade level competency? Of course not! A child functions best if he is correctly placed. Parents also need to be aware that their child is making progress and, if not, need to question what can be done.

Many children are pretty competitive in our society and most children at a certain point pick up the fact that they can't do something that their friends can do. I have seen six  year old children who have become anxious because they can't read. While it would be wonderful if this didn't happen, and we can work for a change in education, the reality is that the change probably won't come in time for your child. Parents should look at their child's progress with the following mindset:
  • Young children do not develop lockstep with other children and there may very well be a large variations in the ages of children in the elementary grades. 
  • The younger the child the more a parent needs to consider physical needs - children don't know if they need glasses, or tubes in their ears, or even if they are grumpy because they didn't get enough sleep. 
  • School continues to be a group activity. Some children need modifications in the learning environment due to learning differences. Some children need a slower pace. But. . . parents need to be realistic about what a school can provide.
  • Parents should be aware of the quality of the school their child attends. 
  • Questions about specific skills give more answers than grade level questions. How is my child's reading fluency? Is she having problems with sight words? Is he usually the first or the last to complete his work in class? 
  • Teachers seldom compare students when talking to parents but classwork is often on display somewhere in the classroom. This is where, if you want to, you can discretely check out your child's work compared to her classmates. Is your child's work messier, shorter, longer, or is he following the prescribed presentation method- title centered, etc.? 
  • Finally, if you are concerned about grade level expectations, here is a link to hear children in the U.S. reading at first grade level  The Internet has various sites to check out grade level expectations.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Great Resource

I just discovered and now recommend this link if your child has learning or attention issues. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lost in Space

A few weeks ago I saw a baby blue jay attempt and miss landing on a small branch. Fortunately the little fledgling didn't hurt himself; and after a few minutes on the ground, with a lot of encouragement from his parents, managed to fly up to another limb. We probably don't give birds enough credit for their spatial awareness. They manage to figure out where they are in space, where their landing spot is, and do it all in the wind. Of course, as the fledgling demonstrated -- it is a learning process. Compare an infant to a 9-year-old child and one can see that, even for humans, learning where one is in space is a process.  

"When conditions are good, babies learn spatial awareness with no special assistance." But even with good conditions some children have difficulty with spatial awareness. I knew that one of my 4th graders might have a spatial issue when at least one of these problems showed up:

  • A child would often head the wrong way out of the classroom to go to PE and lunch, even after several months of school.
  • A child might not know how many stories we had in our two-story school. One child guessed that there were five floors since "We go upstairs all the time." He appeared unaware of the times the class went down the stairs.
  • A child would have difficulty finding pages in a book. A request to turn to page 58 would have him slowly starting at page 60 page and moving forward turning pages. When asked "Is 58 less than 60?" the child could state that it was, but continue to go forward.
  • A child's handwriting was cramped and intermittently floated below and above the line.
  • A child might consistently have the correct letters in a word but write them in incorrect order. For example: a child who only had dyslexia might write sed for said. A child with a spatial problem might write asid or esd for the word said.
When these problems showed up I would refer the student to an Occupational Therapist (OT) for evaluation(including a visual perception test) and  therapy if needed. I wonder how much easier school would have been for these children if their spatial awareness problems had been discovered earlier than fourth grade.

Spatial problems can affect many areas in a child's academic life. A child with spatial problems may have:
  • Difficulty following directions - especially those involving words such as beneath, behind, right, left, etc.
  • Difficulty with handwriting - holding a pencil too tightly, constantly pushing too hard and breaking the point, writing above or below the line, or incorrectly spacing letters and words.
  • Difficulty reading and spelling - a child with dyslexia has problems with sound symbol recognition. Add a spatial problem and that child may have additional problems with order of letters or remembering to read left to right.
  • Difficulty in math - keeping numbers lined up, remembering to work right to left on addition and subtraction, understanding area, perimeter, or other geometric terms
  • Difficulty with other children - always stepping on heels in a line, forgetting which way to run in a game, difficulty with directions when playing a new group game
Some things to remember about spatial problems:
Most of us know adults who frequently get lost, can't follow directions, or are poor judges of distances when driving. Occupational therapists can screen your child for these types of  problems and, if needed, help your child understand and overcome these difficulties.