How to Teach Your Kids That Puerto Ricans Are Americans, Too

According to some polls, only about half of Americans are aware that people from Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory – are, in fact, Americans.

According to the latest estimates, Puerto Rico may not have fully restored power for as many as six months.
Yet the damage from Hurricane Maria is not making front-page news like the damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma recieved. Perhaps our relative lack of focus on Maria stems from media saturation of natural disasters: Maria is just one more on top of a summer of unprecedented weather.
Or maybe it’s because many Americans don’t realize that Maria has happened to us.
According to some polls, only about half of Americans are aware that people from Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory – are, in fact, Americans. A March 2017 Suffolk poll asked 1,000 people “What is the national citizenship of a person born in Puerto Rico whose parents were both also born in Puerto Rico?” 472 people responded “American,” 296 responded “Puerto Rican,” while 207 more people were unsure.
A 2016 Economist poll asked just under 2,000 respondents the same question. 43 percent answered “American,” while 41 percent answered “Puerto Rican.” 15 percent were unsure.
What’s especially concerning about these Economist poll responses is the breakdown by age. 45 percent of people under the age of 30 were more likely to answer “Puerto Rican,” while 38 percent answered “American” and another 18 percent were unsure. The poll suggests that our youngest citizens are even less likely to know that the people living in U.S. territories are American citizens.

Why U.S. territories are forgettable

Located in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is one of five populated U.S. territories. This hurricane season refreshed our memories about the other Caribbean territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Our president’s recent conflict with North Korea has reminded us of Guam, which is strategically located in the North Pacific. The North Pacific holds one other U.S. territory, the Northern Mariana Islands. The fifth territory, American Samoa, is located in the South Pacific.
One reason these places are out of mind is that they’re out of sight. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are over 1,500 miles away from Washington D.C. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are all over 7,000 miles away.
Another reason is that they sound different. The islands are home to linguistic diversity that perhaps confuses American citizens who expect Americans to speak English. Perhaps that’s why when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court, news coverage referred to her as the “daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.” She is not the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She is the daughter of American citizens, who happened to live in Puerto Rico, whose people have been citizens for 100 years.

The costs of our ignorance

These five territories are designated as “unincorporated.” Legally speaking, this means that while their inhabitants are (except in American Samoa) U.S. citizens, they do not share all the rights and protections that come with that citizenship.
Although all of these territories sit a long distance from Washington, each of them send an elected representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. Those representatives, however, do not actually get to represent their constituents, as they are not granted voting rights. Additionally, none of these territories’ citizens are permitted to vote in our presidential elections.
As John Oliver reports, that lack of voting rights hasn’t made some territorial citizens stop voting. In 2012, Guam’s straw poll election drew more voters than the U.S. general election. In 2012, 67 percent of Guam’s population voted. Only 61 percent of the 50 states did.

Singing our way to knowledge

How do we make Americans aware of the problems facing these territories if so many of us don’t recognize their inhabitants as fellow citizens? We could share poignant raps like those written by “Hamilton” writer Lin Manuel Miranda and hope for equally talented writer-singer-producers on all of the U.S. islands.
Barring that, perhaps we could start by reworking an old classic that’s almost as catchy as Miranda’s tunes: “Fifty Nifty United States.”
If you were a child or have known a child during the last 50 years, you’re probably now humming through an alphabetical list of the states.
L.V. Anderson hypothesizes that “Fifty Nifty’s” alphabetical format and patriotic spirit made it perfect for distribution as school choral music. Plus, the song is a game: remember and sing the states in order, sometimes as fast as you can. What student doesn’t love a little musical competition?
Anderson writes that “Fifty Nifty” is not, “in the end, about the Founding Fathers or American exceptionalism or even how beautiful our country is. It’s just a catalog of our nation’s contents – an indisputable list of ingredients for America.”
I would suggest that we need an updated catalog.
If we’re really going to go “one by one til we’ve had our say,” we need to let each part of the U.S. actually have its say. For some, that might mean full citizenship and voting rights and statehood. But those are thorny issues with many different stakeholders.
What if we started small and just taught our citizens that these places exist? What might the future of these territories look like if generations of American school kids commit to memory?
Fifty nifty United States
plus five unincorporated territories,
Shout ’em, scout ’em, tell all about ’em,
One by one till we’ve had our say for every place in the U.S.A.
My version is not as great as the original. Plus, I’m not sure how to work in the 11 uninhabited territories. But it’s a start.
Miranda could certainly do better than me. And maybe he will. Guess what his favorite elementary school chorus song was?

How to Help Your Toddler Graduate From Board Books to the Real Deal

When everyone’s sure where baby’s belly button can be found, use these tips to help your toddler make the transition to the next phase of reading together.

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My children know that a request to snuggle up together with a book is a reliable way to get Mom’s attention. Even my youngest has his irresistible back-ended wiggle into my lap down pat. Repeated readings of classic board books like catchy “Moo, Ba, La, La, La,” sweet “Goodnight Moon,” or simple-yet-for-some-reason-always-hilariously-surprising “Peek-A Who?” are part of the fabric of countless children’s childhoods – and rightfully so. Reading together from birth fosters positive relationships, builds vocabulary, and contributes to later school success.
There comes a time, however, when the board book spines are cracked (or in the case of my third child, chewed), the flaps are falling off, and the furry spots on the Touch-and-Feel animals feel a little greasy. When everyone is pretty darn sure where baby’s belly button can be found, use these tips to help your toddler make the transition to the next phase of reading together:

Teach book care

Everyone is more likely enjoy reading a wider variety of books together if your toddler learns a bit about how to treat them. Get rid of those paper jackets on hardcover books – all they do is get crushed or used as hats anyways. With great fanfare, show your toddler how to turn pages carefully. Demonstrate how to put books back on the shelf without mangling them. If books do get damaged, invest in some clear packing tape and have your child help you lovingly fix them.

Choose the right “training books”

When you ask your toddler to buy into a book outside his usual repertoire, make sure the experience will be attention grabbing. Alphabet books like “Eating the Alphabet” by Lois Ehlert and “ABC Drive!” by Naomi Howland gave our always-hungry, vehicle-loving older kids the pointing and participating opportunities they needed to stay engaged. Books that naturally invite the use of exaggerated expression worked well too. Make up your own out-of-tune version of the song in “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes” by James Dean, or imagine yourself on stage as you convey the suspense in “The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear, and the Red, Ripe Strawberry” by Audrey and Don Wood. Stick to books without too many words on the page or that page will get ripped as your toddler rushes to turn it prematurely. Choose bright, splashy illustrations over monochrome pencil sketches.

Work up to it

When I reached the point with my oldest son when I could no longer face Spot the dog without a grimace, I decided to add a few select hardbacks to our book basket. My son couldn’t sit still for them to be read as written, so we first just pointed to each familiar farm animal in “Duck on a Bike.” In moments of exceptional attention, I ad-libbed the story – “Look! Then the cat rode a bike!” – and over time added more of the actual text. Our enjoyment of “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” and “If You Give a Pig a Party” by Laura Numeroff began with just flipping the pages to find the pancakes and balloons, but we progressed from there. Some days, I skipped sections if my son was on a power page-flipping tear. After some time, my always-in-motion kid actually sat to hear whole stories, and even began to call me out when I changed or skipped sections.
Embrace slow-and-steady, strategically choosr your next book move, and channel your inner thespian to expand your reading experiences with your toddler. Save those old favorites, though – by the time you have your next kid, you’ll look forward to lifting those flaps and exclaiming over where cute little Spot might be hiding all over again.

The French Method of Education You Should Bring Into Your Parenting

The underlying principles of Freinet education can be easily applied at home.

Some of the world’s greatest education philosophers have remained pretty much unknown and Célestin Freinet, one of France’s greatest education reformers, is no exception. However, several exclusively Freinet schools still exist in France and there are thousands of “Freinet classes” within traditional French classrooms.

The Freinet method emerged in the wake of World War I. Born to peasant farmers in a small French village, the difficult financial situation of Freinet’s parents did not allow him to attend high school. He did, however, get a position as a primary school teacher. He was one of the greatest critics of the French education system and advocated a theoretical, political, and practical approach to education throughout his career.

Many of the Freinet education principles are shared by other great philosophers. Better still, many of these principles relate as much to parents as they do to teachers. In other words, the underlying principles of this education can be easily applied at home. Here are a few tips to help you apply Freinet’s philosophy of education at home.

1 | Each child is special

The Freinet method believes that each child is special and has something to bring to the classroom. This method promotes co-operative learning where kids teach each other (rather than teachers teaching them). Freinet believed that kids who had mastered particular subjects were better able to teach them to other kids.

The Freinet method also believes that no two kids are alike. Freinet classes do not give kids grades. A child either knows something or is in the process of acquiring that knowledge. Kids are also taught to evaluate themselves based on different colors, which represent different levels of learning.

Here are some ways to adopt the Freinet method:

  • Treat your kid as an individual and focus on what he can do rather than on what you think he’s supposed to know how to do.
  • Show your child she’s special. Speak words that build her up. Remember that your words shape how kids view themselves.

2 | Kids aren’t supposed to be passive

Like many other philosophers, Freinet believed that kids “learn through work.” The Freinet method encourages kids to make products or propose services. Kids are encouraged to write about their own personal adventures using their own words, and to note what they experience either within or outside the classroom.

Kids are also given different roles within the classroom (doorman, postman, etc.) to help strengthen the link between school and society. There is also a secretary who writes down the decisions made during the class meetings held once a week. Although the application of the method greatly varies across Freinet classes, teachers who use this method believe that real-life activities are important in the learning process.

Here are some ways to adopt the Freinet method:

  • Freinet is not alone in insisting on the benefits of connecting with nature. Encourage your kids to connect with their surroundings and be more observant of the things around them. When we help kids express themselves in their own way – short writings, drawings, photos, sculptures, collected objects – we help them make use of real-life experiences to learn.
  • Freinet believed that kids whose productions were valued learned more, so hang up your kids’ drawings and put his or her sculptures where everyone can see them.
  • Multiple studies have shown the benefits of giving kids chores. The earlier kids start on chores, the more confident and self-sufficient they become. Giving kids age-appropriate regular chores does a lot for their social, academic, and emotional well-being.

3 | Learning and creativity go hand-in-hand

One of the founding principles of the Freinet method is that kids should undertake research. Kids are expected to carry out “field investigations” in their natural environment and within their local communities. The results of these investigations are then shared with the rest of the class.

The Freinet method believes in letting kids learn through trial and error. It believes that failure is an important part of learning, and that constantly coming to kids’ aid prevents them from learning important lessons.

Here are some ways to adopt the Freinet method:

4 | Kids are the best versions of themselves when they are involved in a democratic environment

Freinet believed that “everyone likes to choose their work even if their choice isn’t beneficial.”

Freinet classes believe in child-centered learning in which every student decides what he or she will work on during a specific period. After discussions with the teacher, kids can then independently work on what Freinet referred to as “centers of interest.” These centers of interest are based on the kids’ own interests.

Here are some ways to adopt the Freinet method:

  • Encouraging your kid to participate in the decision-making process can help foster his independence and improve his problem-solving skills. Involving your kid in decision-making increases the chances that he will respect the decisions made and can also help reduce procrastination.

5 | Open communication channels help kids thrive

Although there are a few basic laws in Freinet classes (for example, violent conduct is prohibited), other class rules are collectively decided upon.

Kids are encouraged to participate in collective decision-making and have a say in sanctions decided by the whole class. Class meetings are held once a week and enable kids to manage conflict and speak about all issues affecting them.

Each Freinet class has a mailbox in which kids can place the issues they would like to be discussed during the meeting. Order is maintained using a “talking stick.” Only the person who has the stick is allowed to speak.

Ways to adopt the Freinet method

Creating open communication channels and a democratic parenting style can help reduce conflict and put an end to power struggles. Remember that negotiation is a powerful tool for resolving family conflict.

The Thing You Can Do From Day One to Shape Your Baby's Brain

If talking to our children can literally “shape their brains” and give them a greater start in life, how can we help?

When my eldest was born, my parents said to me: “He may just be a newborn, but don’t forget to talk to him as much as you can. It’s one of the most important things you can do for him.”
Now, as a first-time, new mum, I must admit I did raise my eyebrows. Surely there are a few other things that a brand new baby needs a little more than me talking to him right now?
As it turns out, my parents weren’t wrong. A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of “Thirty Million Words,” by Dana Suskind, and the key message of the books is that every child has the potential to succeed both socially and academically. But this can only really happen if from an early age their parents create a positive environment for early language learning.
Why, exactly? Because language plays a central role in the formation of a child’s neuronal network. We’re all born with as many as 100 billion neurons, but initially these are all unconnected, like telephone poles without the lines. Over time, and during the first three years of life, between 700 and 1,000 new connections are made every second. As the neurons become connected, they pave the way for increased brain function – from memory and emotion to motor skills and language.

The 30 million word gap

Because so much of this activity happens in the first three years of life, it’s fair to say that every single sound, sight, and sensation that we are exposed to as young babies and children will effectively lay the foundation for our future cognitive abilities. To support this theory, Suskind quotes a rigorous six-year-study published in 1995 by social scientists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, called “The Early Catastrophe, The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three.” The study highlighted that socioeconomic status isn’t in itself the deciding factor when it comes to a child’s academic success – the child’s early language environment is.
The study proved that in an hour, children with a high socioeconomic status heard two thousand words on average, compared to the mere 600 words heard by their peers lower on the socioeconomic scale. Over time, this amounted to a 30-million-word gap in the number of words that different children heard by age three. Essentially, children who grow up in homes with lots of talking, regardless of their parents’ economic status or level of education, tend to do better later in life.
So if talking to our children can literally “shape their brains” and give them a greater start in life, how can we help?

1 | Read and tell stories

According to Suskind, reading and telling stories to our children fosters their inclination towards imagination and, eventually, speech. A great idea to set our children up for success (and a good skill to have by the time they start school) is to talk to them about what is going on in the book, and how it affects the characters – in an age-appropriate way, of course. No more skipping that bedtime story from now on.

2 | Create a growth mindset

Suskind claims that criticism can be upsetting for children, causing them to retreat into their shells. Excessive praise on the other hand can make them dependent on the opinions of others for motivation. So it’s important that we help our children become confident from an early age – we should encourage them to believe in their own abilities and know that every goal is approachable and achievable. Teaching our children that no matter what challenge they face, they’ll be able to overcome it through perseverance, grit, and tenacity helps them build a growth mindset.
How do we do this exactly? By using positive and supportive words (affirmative feedback), we prompt the children to interact through language, and help them develop their vocabulary and social skills.

3 | Tune in

“Tuning in” refers to the practice of paying attention to where your child’s attention is. So if your child is building a tower, the best thing to do in that moment is to engage in a conversation about what they’re doing, rather than trying to move the focus to another activity. Makes sense, right? Because their attention doesn’t switch focus, and you’re talking about something they’re interested in, the learning is seamless and more effective.

4 | Talk more

Never pass on an opportunity to talk to your children. Every mundane activity can help with brain development. Describe what’s happening as you go about your day – give your children new words, enhance their vocabulary, and strengthen the links between sounds and the objects they correspond to. Then take it to the next level by talking about memories or telling them an imaginary story that is related to what you’re doing or talking about. This enriches their “decontextualized language.”

5 | Take turns

As you would in a conversation with another adult, don’t forget to respond to your children’s gestures, sounds, and words. This “parental responsiveness” has been linked to cognitive development, social-emotional development, and physical health. Also, don’t forget to give them enough time to think of a word for themselves, rather than saying it for them.
Isn’t it great to know that promoting language (and brain) development in our children is something that each and every one of us has within our power to achieve? It’s empowering to know that we can all help our children be all they can be.
Do you have any more tips to share? Leave tips or suggestions in the comments section below.

How to Carry Your Baggage – The Work of Becoming an Adult

Growing up never really ends.

My 15-year-old son and I are sitting in the car in our driveway. I’ve asked him about his grades, which tripped a live wire.
Simon, the child who’s never had to work to succeed, is struggling mightily this year. A high school sophomore, he’s juggling a load of advanced academic classes and a busy extracurricular schedule, and those spinning plates have begun to crash all around him.
Suddenly the child who once finished his homework at school can’t even start it at home because he didn’t understand the lesson. He’s frustrated and embarrassed. He doesn’t ask for help, thinking he’ll catch up, and falls further and further behind.
His grades are beginning to cost him. When his performance matched his potential, I enthusiastically supported his full social schedule. He enjoyed very loosely regulated use of his phone and other electronics.
As I watched his grades decline, I began to say, “no” to his requests to hang with his friends after school. We lowered his screen-time limits and cut off his phone’s cellular data.
This near-police state is uncomfortable for everyone, and long, angry conversations like the one we’re locked in now have become our new normal.
“Why can’t you accept that this is just who I am now? Maybe I’m not supposed to get good grades anymore! Maybe I’ve reached the point where this is just too hard for me,” he argues.
I’m quiet, and he continues.
“This is the best that I can do, and it’s not good enough. I hate coming home. This is all we talk about. Why can’t we just stop talking about it? I wish I could go to sleep and have it be next year.”
He’s not wrong. We do talk about his grades often, and I’m tired of it too. Unlike when he was four, he doesn’t spend all his time trailing me around the house. We don’t exchange 10,000 words in a day. I can’t work this topic in between long discussions about Pokemon and Star Wars. I seize any opportunity I have with him alone to check in on his progress. I don’t like the dynamic it creates either, but I’m stuck.
“Dad doesn’t talk to me about this stuff. Dad trusts me to manage it,” he rationalizes.
Simon rarely plays his father and me against each other but, as our eldest, he has the most experience plucking those strings, and the blow initially lands just as he intends. I can feel the blood start to flood my face.
I’m already responding in my head. Of course Dad doesn’t talk to you about this stuff, Dad doesn’t check grades. Even when Dad and I were married, years ago, schoolwork was my domain. This isn’t about trusting you, kid, it’s about Dad delegating to me. Don’t flatter yourself and don’t imply that this is about one parent doing their job better than the other.
I steady my focus on the topic at hand. “This isn’t about trust. I trust you. I also think you need help. Your grades matter in ways that are hard to see right now. What’s your plan to improve? How can I help?”
He doesn’t hear me. “Do you know how much I hate that you and Dad talk about this? That you work to have the same consequence? I can’t get away from this pressure anywhere. I hate coming home to both houses.”
He continues, voicing frustration about the two houses he occupies, his large blended family, his stepparents. Outwardly, he is a well-adjusted, happy young man. Tonight I’m hearing a different side of his story. The anger and sadness continue to boil over, each voiced hurt overtaking the last like waves tumbling onto the sand.
I stay quiet. I’m working hard not to let this trigger my own stuff. He needs a calm adult present, not a mom overwhelmed by her own guilt and grief. I breathe deeply, concentrating on dropping the tension out of my shoulders and keeping my hand on top of his. Sidestepping my own triggers is tough and requires nearly my full concentration.
He rages on, but he can’t drown out the voice in my head. That voice wonders if I’m too hard on him, if maybe I’m missing signs of something bigger. She questions his healing, my parenting, and our relationship. She’s loud and demoralizing, and I have to fight to stay present with my son.
He pauses and, in the silence, I look across at him. His head’s dropped and his shoulders slumped. He’s tired from a long day and exhausted by this late-night swirl of emotions. Suddenly I see my little boy in his rumpled six-foot frame and my inner voice goes quiet. I know what he needs. I remember how to be his mama.
“We’re where we’re supposed to be, love,” I say softly. “All of us. You’re supposed to be struggling with grades and school and balance and girls and friends and your parents. That’s what teenagers do. When I was 15, I wasn’t a fan of time at home with my family either. My parents weren’t divorced, but I carried different baggage.
“Sorting out your baggage, figuring out how you carry it and how it shapes you is the work of becoming an adult. Figuring out what to do when things break down is more of that work. Asking for help. Trying something new. All of that is the work of growing up, and it’s supposed to feel scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard.”
I don’t tell him how scary and overwhelming and uncomfortable adult work still is. How much I worry about the impact of decisions I’ve made and the words I say. How, just when I think I have it figured out, everything shifts and I have to start again. How hard it sometimes is to push through the story I’m telling myself and show up for the people who matter most. How, years later, I’m still learning about the baggage I carry. I don’t tell him the truth I’m only just learning: Growing up never really ends.
“You’re doing your job as a teenager. I am doing my job as your mom. We’ll find our way through together.”
I ruffle his too-long hair and get out of the car. The hour in the driveway is enough for the night.
He grabs his backpack and starts into the house. “I love you, Mom,” he says quietly.
I gather his gangly, suddenly grown-up body into an awkward hug. None of him fits where he used to, and he hunches down to put his head on my shoulder. This once-familiar act is uncomfortable for both of us, an achingly obvious metaphor for our interactions of late.
“I love you too, sweetheart,” I tell him, and hold on.
This piece was originally published on the author’s blog.
 

Teaching Self-Control Is More Important Than Academics

Recent studies have found that self-control is a better predictor of future success than I.Q.
So how do we go about teaching our children self-control?

“Ava can write her own name.”

I stood there annoyed and somewhat dumbstruck as my wife uttered these words to me. Ava is another three-year-old in my son’s preschool class and my son, who also happens to have a three letter name, definitely cannot write his name.

As I stood there reflecting on this fact, a familiar feeling arose within me that went something like this: 1) my son is falling behind the other kids, 2) I’m not being a good enough parent, 3) where else is he falling behind? and 4) this is probably the first in a string of failed academic milestones for my son.

It sounds illogical writing them out, but I feel them nonetheless. The thing is, these feelings are not reserved for when super-kids like Ava outshine my children. I’m hit with them every time I’m faced with a skill milestone my kids haven’t reached yet – my two-year-old not knowing her colors or not liking books, or the fact that my three-year-old doesn’t know how to use scissors properly.

And I know you feel these things, too. I’m sure it’s a different list of “behinds” for your child, but they’re there nonetheless, and the pressure to make sure your child isn’t behind the other kids weighs on you like a ton of bricks. We all want our kids to show up to kindergarten like an old, learned professor: “Ah yes, the alphabet.”

It’s completely understandable why we parents have this mindset. One quick look around the internet or at what other parents are “supposed” to do supports this paranoia. Heck, I just ran across a “71 things your child needs to know before kindergarten” post. Jeez Louise! Well, I have good news for you.

A 2011 study lead by Avshalom Caspi of Duke University found that self-control is a better predictor of future success than I.Q. (which is arguably linked to academic performance). Researchers followed 1,000 children and tested them every other year from the time they were three until age 11 on their ability to control themselves. They also tested their I.Q. among other factors.

When the children reached age 32, the researchers looked for correlations and found that self-control – not I.Q. – was the best predictor of future success as measured by health, wealth, and criminal offending.

The researchers found that “children with poor self-control were more likely to make mistakes in adolescence, resulting in ‘snares’ that trapped them in harmful lifestyles. More children with low self-control began smoking by the age of 15, left school early with no educational qualifications, and became unplanned teenage parents.”

The inverse of this, of course, is that if we teach our children how to control themselves, they’re more likely to be successful in the long-term and not become trapped in these kinds of snares. The study even cites other studies stating that, while self-control is influenced by genes, it is also influenced by the environment (i.e. a parent’s guidance).

So what does this all mean? Teaching your children how to control their impulses – how to refrain from hitting when they’re upset or how to keep from grabbing a toy that they want – is actually a better investment of your time and energy than teaching them academics.

In my mind, this is fantastic news. All the blood, sweat, and tears that go into consistently disciplining our children will pay greater dividends than trying to keep up with the Joneses, academically speaking. Stay the course. It will pay off!

Ways to teach self-control

So how do we go about teaching our children self-control? First and foremost, by consistently enforcing consequences. This is one of the hardest parts of parenting. Which consequence should you use? When should you enforce a consequence?

By consistently enforcing healthy consequences, a child understands that not controlling their own behavior will lead to undesirable results. We’re essentially teaching them now what they would otherwise have to learn later in life, but with much steeper consequences.

You should often remind your children of the rules and expectations you have of them. One study found that reminding a child of a rule resulted in the child showing more self-control than if the child was simply given time to think about the rule beforehand. Other ways to teach self-control include playing “Simon Says,” “Red Light, Green Light,” and other impulse-controlling games.

In summary, don’t stress about making your child excel academically. Your time will be better spent teaching them self-control. 

How Music Education Helps Teach Kids Empathy

Several studies have determined that kids exposed to music, particularly in groups or in correlation with rhythmic movement, have higher levels of empathy.

Introducing music into your child’s life from a young age provides a myriad of positive prosocial abilities, from language acquisition to organizational skills. Music classes, violin lessons, and band practice all offer great benefits beyond pretty music and social interaction. They also support the development of working memory and help reduce anxiety. 

But did you know that the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” could also help develop your child’s empathy? 

This critical skill seems more important now than ever: our country is politically divided, simulated violence is everywhere, mom shaming runs rampant, and school violence rates continue to increase

In a world that often seems upside-down and topsy-turvy, it’s easy to retreat into our social bubbles and pretend that these things aren’t affecting us directly. We choose alternative schooling for our kids, hand pick their afterschool activities, live in the best neighborhoods we can afford, and try, try, try to will away the ominous negatives on the outside. 

While this works for a time, what does this do to our children’s empathic development?

A major side effect of retracting into our social bubbles: hyper-homogenized groups of people whom we, and our kiddos, interact with. I’m not just talking about race, here (though that is a huge factor). I’m talking about religion, finances, educational ideals, and politics, to name a few.

So how do we choose to make sound choices for our children’s academic, social, and religious lives, while still providing an environment that encourages the development of cross cultural understanding and, subsequently, empathy?

The answer may be relatively simple: music.

Several studies have determined that children exposed to music, particularly in groups or in correlation with rhythmic movement, have higher levels of empathy. Additionally, children are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar to them. Thus, it would stand to reason that those with greater familiarity with multicultural music and music that evokes emotional responses would have higher empathy for those around them.

Some studies have shown that kids who were exposed to music at a young age, even if just through lullabies, developed thicker parts of the brain responsible for executive functioning.  This means they have better working memory, attentional control, and organization skills.

How does music do all this? There are a few factors. Group interaction, particularly with rhythmic inclusions (such as drumming or singing), provides a sense of social-emotional connection and creates a feeling of responsibility for those in the group.

Rhythm and music engage the mirror neurons in our brains, which are responsible for that sensation you get when watching someone do something – like throw a ball, or get hurt – and you feel as though you know exactly how they’re feeling. Music also stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which controls your heartbeat, and the limbic system, which controls your feelings and emotions.

All this is to say that music makes you feel connected to those around you. And when you feel connected, you feel empathy. 

While group interaction may provide the strongest foundation for empathic development when it comes to music making, even passive listening can set your child on the right path. That’s the magic of music: all you need are your vocal chords, even if you don’t sound as smooth as ol’ Sinatra.

You’ll find an array of opportunities on any given day to incorporate positively influential music into your children’s lives. Singing, and its inherent physical understanding of rhythm, is the most readily available option. 

Not sure how to incorporate singing into your daily routine? Be creative. For instance, with younger children who still need help with transitions, song is a wonderful way to both help them and promote empathic understanding. 

Start by singing a “clean up song” or “tooth brushing song” as you move your kiddo from one activity to the next. If you don’t know one, make one up. Pick a few words, a couple notes, and go for it. It does not have to be Beethoven to be influential.

Music also soothes and energizes us. It has deep ties to tradition, religion, and subsequently, to cultural identity. Music can define self and introduce cultural differences. Music encourages empathic communication.

Encouraging and developing this capacity for empathy in children who have become desensitized to both simulated and real violence is a tall order. Parents need all the help we can get. So if engaging in group music lessons, or singing a little ditty about picking up toys helps ease the divide between violence and empathy, then why not give it a shot?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some lullabies to sing.

What do you think? Is music an easy way to teach empathy? What have you done to incorporate music into your day?

Being "Gifted" Is Just Another Kind of Special Need

All children deserve to learn, be challenged, and to reach their full potential. While the label “gifted” sounds like a lucky break, it isn’t always.

We all think our snowflakes are special. They are, obviously. No one’s curls bounce the way our baby’s curls bounce. No one can hold a candle to the way that our little one can throw a baseball, or play the piano. Or maybe, no one can burp the alphabet, quite the way junior can.

But not all snowflakes are “gifted” snowflakes. In the age of participation trophies, and Even-Stevens, we still need to label and distinguish our gifted kids.

The bell curve

When we talk about special needs in a classroom, we’re not just talking about the needs of those on the left side of the bell curve. In other words, we aren’t just talking about the kids in the “other” classroom. We are also talking about kids who need, and should have access to, extra work, special services, and trained teachers to perform at their best.

Although it doesn’t sound pretty, and it takes away our unique-special-snowflake-ness to describe it this way, people are a series of averages. It’s the only way to describe groups of people by their varying differences. It’s also the only way to provide gifted students, and students with special needs, services that they desperately need in order to succeed.

All children deserve to learn, be challenged, and to reach their full potential. I can’t make my child learn more slowly, any more than I can make your child learn more quickly. Forcing gifted children to sit still, be quiet, and learn at a slower pace, or learn material that’s beneath them is, in essence, a punishment. Assessing them, and labeling them based on those assessments, is a requirement for the educational system to deliver services that they need, and deserve. 

But we just need to let kids be kids

Letting a gifted kid “be a kid” without a label is impossible. We, the parents, need the help that a label provides. My son was always two steps ahead of us, figuring out, and getting around, all of our chore charts, rules, and rewards systems. If there was a loophole, he’d find it. An engineer and a college professor with three master’s degrees between us, and the nine-year-old outsmarted us. Every. Single. Time.

Labeling a child as gifted does not turn him into an adult, a businessman, or a buffalo. Before we got the label figured out, we were the frustrated parents of a kid who never did what he was told. He was equally frustrated with us for not explaining things in a way he understood. We needed parenting solutions that worked for gifted kids.

Sour grapes

My child isn’t just gifted, he’s profoundly gifted. In your head, did my voice shift to hoity-toity, la-tee-da? Imagine something else. Imagine that parents with gifted kids say it no differently than “my kid has asthma.” They aren’t telling you that their child is gifted because they want to brag; they’re telling you to explain a behavior, or more probably, to beg for help.

Remember that bell curve? Everything inside the bell curve is average, normal, maybe even easy. Everything outside is a challenge. If, for lack of a better word, “regular” kids are challenging, everything to the right or left of the bell curve is an exponent of that. Gifted is ultra challenging with a nice name.

The mommy wars aren’t over. As long as human nature exists, so will irrational envy. Because the label “gifted” sounds like a treat that one kid has and another kid doesn’t, it puts moms on the defensive. If their child doesn’t get access to special treatment, no one should.

Furthermore, there’s an unspoken guilt, in which moms blame themselves for not handing out a gift that they mistakenly believe was available to their own children. Could they have done more flashcards? More prenatal yoga? It makes parents feel like the only way to even the playing field is to say that no child gets to be labeled, making fairness reign supreme over equality. 

What parents sometimes fail to recognize, at a fundamental level, is that giftedness is a special needs issue. It’s not a treat, or an actual gift. No one would want a wheelchair ramp removed from a school because it’s “not fair.” There’s no reason not to open and explore the educational needs for a gifted child, even at the elementary or preschool level, because you can’t help but see it as an opportunity your child doesn’t have.

It’s all in the name

In the end, the label “giftedness” itself causes the most ire. It’s like the Coxackie Virus – no one wants that. It’s not only because no one wants it, but also because it’s a terribly embarrassing thing to tell someone that you have. Even the easier version, “hand, foot and mouth disease” sounds weird.

We should’ve called giftedness something else when we started, long ago. We should’ve labeled it something like “intelligence quotient differential,” or something with no positive adjectives. That way, others could understand that to not be gifted does not mean they are deficient.

More importantly, parents raising non-gifted children aren’t deficient parents. Quite simply, “gifted” needs a better name.

How Movement in the Classroom Helps Kids Focus

Allowing students more movement – both in the classroom and at home – is a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids alike.

The first time I saw my son bouncing back and forth between the work and play areas at preschool, I knew he was doomed. While his Montessori school was ideal for his energy level, the idea of sending him to public school for kindergarten left me with visions of phone calls from the principal because, “he just couldn’t sit still.”

This scenario often sent my anxiety into overdrive and it wasn’t until I tapped into my own knowledge and training in Exercise Science and Educational Counseling that I realized learning doesn’t have to be this challenging – for my son, or for any student.

So, with the help of his talented teachers, several sessions with a brilliant occupational therapist, and some genius props, my son’s “village” equipped him with the tools he needed to manage his wiggles in the classroom, and avoid having a permanent lunch date with the principal.

How does movement help?

In the simplest of terms, movement “turns on” the brain. Movement is one of the best ways for children and teens to gain control over their behavior, engage in their learning, and retain what they’re being taught. Sitting for long periods of time actually works against the ability of students to learn effectively. Many parents and teachers are now realizing that incorporating exercise and movement into the classroom better prepares the body to learn.

Dr. Niran Al-Agba, a pediatrician and owner of Silverdale Pediatrics says, “Exercise stimulates the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for focus, concentration, planning, and organization. This is the same place in the brain where medications for ADHD have an effect. So movement is a natural way to help kids focus and pay attention better.”

As most educators can attest, there are entire groups of kids who are missing out on essential learning opportunities because they struggle to focus and pay attention. Many of these students, like my son, have found success the “natural way” when they’re afforded the opportunity to use movement while working and learning.

Jackie Brown, a pediatric occupational therapist and owner of Apple Tree Therapy stresses the importance of having a child’s body (in all sensory areas) in balance. “When our body is balanced it helps support increased neurological function (more focused attention, better problem solving skills, and improved self-concept). As society continues to become more sedentary with video games preferred to playgrounds, and playgrounds having less options for a variety of movement, it is even more important to present creative movement activities to children in classroom settings.”

Brown definitely echoes the sentiments of many parents when it comes to recess and outdoor activity. “From my perspective, recess is the most important part of the day for children. Not only is it fun, but it is critical to help children’s bodies get the sensory input they need for learning.”

Like Brown, Dr. Al-Agba also believes that, overall, we don’t have enough movement built into a child’s school day. As a result, “children are showing signs of that unfulfilled need to move, which is translating into signs of inattention and impulsivity at school.”

What can schools do?

In a perfect world, recess would be plentiful, physical education would take place every day and kids would be allowed to move freely while learning. But the reality is, recess is becoming more limited, P.E. is only a few days a week, and students are being asked to sit more due to the demands of standardized testing.

Because of this, Brown stresses the importance of having more opportunities for children to move in the classroom setting. She encourages teachers to consider effective movement ideas including sitting on yoga balls, using foot fidgets (exercise bands around chair legs to push against), doing chair push-ups by lifting oneself off the chair, and fidget toys like stress balls.

Incorporating short exercise or stretch breaks into lessons can resharpen children’s focus on learning. Especially for younger students, dividing lessons into 8-20 minute “chunks” punctuated with activities that involve movement keeps their attention on learning and helps make the content more memorable. Exercise and stretch breaks also work well during transitions between lessons.

As a school counselor for the last 18 years, I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms and witnessed first-hand the focused attention that occurs as a result of giving students the freedom to move their bodies. In my school, many teachers have seen a decrease in inattention and impulsivity by using exercise balls, standing work areas, outdoor learning, and even a few laps around the track to burn some energy before taking a test.

Danyell Laughlin, an English teacher at Klahowya Secondary School in Silverdale, Washington, shared with me that, “sitting down quietly does not equal the best work for all kids, it does not even work for most kids. Standing in the back, sitting on exercise balls that require balance, even turning back and forth a bit in a chair that swivels works out much of the physical restlessness a body has and allows the brain to focus on the work, better and longer.”

And incorporating different modalities for learning has also been an enormous help in Laughlin’s classroom. “I have some students who get up and walk a bit, quietly, for a minute or two between chunks of focused work on the assignment. As a result, the work is significantly better and the students are happier, more confident, and more willing to tackle difficult tasks without giving up.”

These energizing “brain breaks” (60 – 90 second movement activities during a single class period, or a few times during each hour) increase blood flow in the body, stimulating brain function. By intentionally incorporating these breaks into the day, students remain longer in their optimal learning state.

Like Laughlin, many other teachers are looking for alternative ways to use movement and exercise with students. Bethany Lambeth, a middle school teacher from Martin Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently made the news for her use of a small foot cycle – DeskCycle – that allows her students to rhythmically pedal while working on math problems.

Since installing these cycles under students desks, Lambeth has seen a huge increase in the quality of students’ work, along with a decrease in missing assignments – a nearly 50% decrease for the students that struggle the most.

What’s so special about the various products and tools available to schools? Lisa Daily of DeskCycle said, “students who have a DeskCycle available to them in the classroom get the benefit of a slow, steady, non-disruptive controlled movement, allowing them to keep their focus and pay full attention to the teacher.”

“Teachers are constantly telling me that students get the wiggles, tap and drum on their desks, drop things on the floor (so they have an excuse to pick them up) all in an attempt to fulfill their need to move,” Daily added. “These students are working so hard at trying to sit still that they cannot concentrate on what the teacher is saying, and that’s why DeskCycles have been such a huge success in the classroom.”

What can parents do at home?

The beauty of all of these tips and tools is that they don’t have to stop when the school day ends. Parents can also utilize many of these techniques at home:

Allow your child to have movement breaks every 8 – 20 minutes while doing homework – push-ups, jumping jacks, quick sprints, scooter, or bike up and down the driveway, etc. These don’t have to be long breaks, sometimes all kids’ need is a few minutes to get refocused.

Have your child sit on an exercise ball (weighted with sand) and roll/rotate their hips while reading.

Use of inflatable wiggle/wobble seats to encourage continuous, subtle movement.

Create a standing work station by using a raised bar area in your kitchen or building your own standing desk.

Equipment like a DeskCycle or a treadmill is a way to keep kids continually moving while practicing concepts learned at school. Treadmills are particularly helpful while quizzing kids on spelling words, math facts, or asking them the practice questions for an upcoming test.

Allowing students more movement – both in the classroom and at home – is a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids alike. Movement helps kids be more successful in their learning and behavior, it sharpens their understanding of difficult concepts, increases their retention of learned information, and sets them on a path of lifelong health and well-being.

6 Ways Applying to College Has Changed Since I Did It

Even though I went to college myself, the application process today is nothing like mine was, and here’s why.

Helping my daughter with her college search has been an eye-opening experience. Even though I went to college myself, the application process today is nothing like mine was, and here’s why:

Extra-curricular activities.

When my daughter asks me what activities I participated in at school, I tell her, “Not getting mugged.”

It’s the truth, that was my after-school focus. There was no little yellow school bus to take me to my high school in Jamaica Queens, New York. Instead, I walked several blocks from my house to the public transportation that would take me past my high school. The route was not the safest, and my mom would warn me every morning to get straight on the bus after my last class – and walk fast.

My only other after school “activity” was working at a bagel shop in my town during the summer of my junior year, and some weekends as a senior. I worked there so I could buy Nike sneakers and Jordache jeans, not because I needed to beef up my resume.

Today, my daughters play varsity sports, participate in community service programs, and have leadership roles in school clubs. But because they haven’t received a patent or won a Tony or have yet to overcome great adversity, they worry that their accomplishments – at age 17 – are not substantial enough to impress college admissions.

Class rigor.

I was a top student at my high school and took every AP class that was offered. Which is to say I took two AP classes my senior year, the most rigorous schedule a student at my high school could take.

My daughter’s high school starts offering AP classes during sophomore year. It’s possible for a student to graduate having taken 10-12 AP classes. My daughter slacked off and only took nine.

Interestingly, all 16 of my credits were transferable and I started college a full semester ahead. However, many of the schools my daughter is looking at will not accept any of her AP classes for credit, only for potential advanced placement.

So many options.

Growing up in New York as part of a middle class family, my options for college were fairly straight forward. Pick a state school, any state school, and fill out the application. The state schools offered a very good education and, financially, it made sense. My semester tuition at college was less than my daughter’s private preschool tuition.

When I first started this college process with my daughters, I thought how lucky they were to have so many options. They can go to school in any state they want. But not limiting their choices has actually made it overwhelming. Having endless choices can be confusing and it’s made them worry about picking the “right” place since they can go anywhere.

Evaluation criteria.

When we helped our daughter put together a list of college choices, we evaluated her options based on many factors. Size, location, Greek life, programs offered, etc. are all a part of how she evaluated where to ultimately apply.

Again, with just a list of state schools to choose from, I applied to the highest ranked one on the list. Except for their zip codes, I actually didn’t know what the other differences were between the schools.

College visits.

I’ve visited over ten different schools with each of my daughters. We’ve gone on tours and sat through information sessions. My daughters have even spent the night and taken classes at some schools to see if the learning environment is a good match for them.

As for my college experience, the first time I saw my own college alma mater, where I would spend four years, was the day I arrived as a freshman. My parents and I never visited during the application process, or after I was accepted, even though the school was a just a four hour drive from my house.

Parental input.

I had two loving, involved parents both of whom worked in the education system. They rightly assumed that, based on my grades and my life goals, I would go to college. They didn’t worry about where I would go or offer much advice when applying. When I was accepted to my first-choice school, there were no balloons, streamers, or cakes frosted in the school’s colors. It just was not a big deal.

Did I have the best college experience ever?  I would not say that. I might have liked a smaller school with more spirit.  But I did have fun, made some life-long friends, and got a quality education – all the things I hope my daughter finds when she goes to college.