Organization makes all the difference

Do you ever feel that your children are messy, can’t seem to find what they’re looking for, or are in a perpetual state of confusion? Is their study time inefficient and frustrating? Do they stay up late to finish their homework only to have trouble locating it the next day in class? And do you find yourself constantly reminding them it’s homework time and wondering how they’ll ever make it on their own?

Disorganization is the root of all these problems, and the good news is that it can be reversed. With the right tools and resources, kids can learn to organize their supplies, prioritize, study smart, and turn chaos into control. As I tell my teenage clients, your calendar can control you or you can control your calendar.

As adults, we’ve likely suffered at the hands of disorganization, and we know that kids need to overcome this problem in order to be successful. The bonus of improving organization is that it has a wonderful ripple effect. Grades will improve, stress will be lifted, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief as kids gain more responsibility and better control of their schedules.

Here are five tips to help kids start the school year in an organized fashion:

TIP #1: Color code your life. Color is an easy-to-see indicator of what to do next. Just as we have traffic lights that tell us green means go and red means stop, color coding each subject in school is a simple way to alert kids as to what folder or notebook to grab. For example, your child might assign the color red to English. The book cover, notebook, folder – whatever is used for English – is red. Now when your child is selecting what he needs to complete his homework, he can easily recognize the correct folder or book. He can spot it in his backpack, locker, and even his messy bedroom, saving time and frustration.

TIP #2:  Always keep important papers in the same place. That red folder for English? The pocket on the left should be for important teacher handouts, instructions for assignments, and any other information provided by the teacher. The right side should be for homework or anything that is the student’s responsibility. Now when the English teacher says it’s time to turn in homework, Johnny knows to go into the right side of his red folder to do just that.

TIP #3:  Maintain an organized backpack. Students tend to use their backpacks like we use that one junk drawer in the kitchen – as a catch all for everything and anything. That’s why it’s crucial that they perform regular clean-outs. If they are following Tips 2 and 3, this should be quick and painless. It’s a chance to make sure they’re putting everything where it belongs and not acquiring junk that takes up space and keeps them from finding what they need.

TIP #4:  Have a designated homework space and time. Children should choose a space with few distractions, somewhere they can concentrate for short blocks of time and won’t be tempted to fall asleep or play video games. In addition, they should choose a time that coincides with their biological needs and busy schedules. Some love to get started immediately after school; others need some downtime to decompress. Regardless of their designated homework time, they all need brain breaks. After studying for no longer than an hour, they should perform a physical activity or switch gears to one requiring a different side of the brain, from the logical to the creative, for example. After 15 minutes or so, they will return to their homework with greater focus and a stronger ability to get the most out of their study time. It’s studying smarter, not longer.

TIP #5:  Write everything down. Pen on paper, it turns out, significantly increases kids’ understanding and memory. Conversely, using a cell phone to take a picture of notes on a board does kids no benefit at all. Research shows that even typing notes is not as beneficial as writing them, since students tend to simply type away as the teacher talks, without converting the message into shorthand and really thinking about what is being said. For these reasons, insist that your kids take notes the old-fashioned way and study them the old fashioned way as well – by making flash cards (yes, writing the information again!) and quizzing themselves on their notes.

Following just one of these tips will make a difference. Following all five can change kids’ lives. The earlier they get organized, the faster they can start enjoying school and making the most of their time at home.

For more tips like these, check out Teenagers 101, the back-to-school book for parents. To work with Dr. D or her team one-on-one via Skype, contact her through Teenager Success 101

Overcoming the Summer Slide

There is a slide that is associated with summer, and it has nothing do with fun. The summer slide refers to the dip kids tend to make during the summer months when they are away from school and the daily habits of studying and learning. I wouldn’t call it an epidemic, but it is by all means real, and for many kids, the summer slide can be devastating to their academic success.

Who’s hit hardest? Interestingly, the summer slide can affect a wide range of students in various ways.

  1. Kids who already struggle in school. These students depend on daily practice and a designed curriculum to continually progress and avoid backward steps. When the routine and learning expectations are removed, their mind relaxes and material they previously knew slips away, sometimes as if they had never learned it. If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know that regular daily practice enforces your knowledge. But a couple months without that reinforcement can wipe away everything you have learned. The same happens with most students, but kids who rely on external forces to stay focused are hit especially hard.
  2. Kids who are making steady progress toward a goal. If your kids know where they’re headed and what they want to see for themselves in the future, they’ve likely counted on teachers, coaches, school counselors, and other mentors in their school life to help them march steadily toward their goals. Remove those support systems, and kids oftentimes lose their focus and sometimes even their drive. Teens balk at receiving counsel from their parents but the same advice coming from a third party – especially one they respect – sounds different to them. They tend to be more accepting of mentorships originating outside the home, and losing those mentors can stall their efforts toward their goals.
  3. Kids who are doing great in school. Imagine you have committed to healthy eating and for 9 months you’ve adopted and maintained a more positive lifestyle. You’ve lost weight and are feeling great, and you think you’ve got this beat. Then you depart on a two-month cruise, replete with 24-hour buffets and a relaxed attitude. What are the chances you’ll stay true to your committed health path? And how much work will you have to do to get back on that path when you return?
  4. Kids who seem aimless or without a view of the big picture. These kids complete assignments or study for the short term – the grade or the GPA – versus studying for lifelong learning. They count on external motivators such as due dates, reminders from others, and direction given by adults to outline their days and keep them moving forward. During the summer when these expectations disappear, so does their progress.

If any of these sound like your children, I encourage you to seek out opportunities to engage and educate your children year-round. Heads up, though, kids have a hard time accepting their parents as teachers and will automatically resist doing work during the summer months. That’s why I recommend a great tutor or summer program catered to your children’s needs and interests. Both serve unique purposes. Tutors can work with your children according to their specific areas of weakness and learning styles. They can be a refreshing change from the traditional classroom and build relationships with your children that are supportive and encouraging. Summer programs offer another way to learn: collectively, as part of a social group, and usually in a hands-on, fun way that makes learning seem less like academics and more like exploration and discovery. Both of these methods of staying fresh work wonders and turn the summer slide into a huge summer step in the right direction.

 Looking for personal tutors and help with keeping your kids on track? Check out Teenager Success 101 for a special summer session that meets your kids wherever they are. Go to www.TeenagerSuccess101.com for more information!

 

10 tips for keeping your kids focused

May is just a month away, which means that kids are gearing up for final exams, final projects, and final efforts to pull out the desired grade. Some have additional stressors: AP exams, SAT or ACT tests, sports tournaments, the need to find a summer job, or just overall concern about that final GPA. At this point in the school year, everything about students’ body language and attitudes screams, “We’re over it!” So how can you help your kids walk that tightrope by finding a balance between taking school seriously and learning how to decompress?

Here are 10 tips for end-of-year school success:

1. Ask your kids how their note-taking is going. Many kids slack off as the end of the year approaches and need a reminder to take the same quality notes they took at the start of the school year. If their notes at the start of the year were thorough and extensive, and their notes now mostly consist of doodles and single words with little meaning, they will need a nudge back down the scholastic path. Point out the difference and remind them that how they end is even more important than how they started. *Note: If your kids are fond of taking pictures of teacher’s notes on the whiteboard, I urge you to discourage them from this practice. It is a proven fact that writing something down contributes to memory retention; taking a picture of it does not.

  1. Make sure they get their sleep. After daylight savings time, and as the days get longer, kids are tempted to stay up later and skimp on their zzzz’s. Encourage them to hit the sack at a decent time, at least until their last final has been put to bed. *Note: Cell phones are the primary culprit when it comes to late and restless nights. Insist your kids charge up in a different room with everything set to silent. Otherwise, the buzzes and beeps – not to mention their obsessive need to respond to them – will keep them up all night.
  1. Don’t be afraid to contact teachers. Kids tend to think that you are over school as much as they are (and you may be, but they don’t need to know that). Show them that you’re still paying attention by staying involved in their progress. Teachers are your allies and when you work with them, you’ll see positive results in your kids’ success.
  1. Encourage organization, especially when it comes to major projects and tests. What can they do today that will make tomorrow a little easier? *Note: The ubiquitous cell phone is the perfect place for kids to store due dates and scheduled activities. They can customize their calendars to send reminders, so there’s no excuse for forgetting.
  1. Keep your kids in school. Teachers see a significant increase in absences during this time of year, and many are unwarranted. Stress to your kids the importance of being in class every day and staying focused on their number one job.
  1. Offer to help your kids by quizzing them and guiding them through test preparation. Whether or not they accept your help is really secondary to the fact that you offered. When parents show an interest in their kids’ studies, it positively impacts kids.
  1. Make sure your children are well fed on testing days. Protein, grapes, blueberries, and other “brain foods” really do impact students’ abilities to focus and maintain energy. Breakfast IS important!
  1. Reward your kids when they do well or after they have completed a tough study or testing session. It doesn’t have to be monetary; it can just be time to sit and watch their favorite TV program or eat their favorite dinner.
  1. Stress mind over matter. Remind your kids that when they have prepared as best as they can, they should take a deep breath and go into their tests with confidence. Mind over matter is significant in determining testing outcomes, so it’s important that they maintain a can-do attitude.
  1. Always encourage balance. Studies show that taking work breaks rejuvenates the mind and helps us to work better and more efficiently. Make sure your kids are getting exercise and fresh air and socializing with friends and family. These pursuits are arguably crucial to overall well-being.

For more ideas about helping your kids find school success, check out Teenagers 101. 

Homework and testing madness – Make it stop

Today I was eating my Special K and scrolling through Facebook posts when I came across a status update that made me want to hurl. It was from a parent of a middle schooler who was clearly frustrated and downright exhausted from all of the homework and expectations piled on her child just a month or so into the school year. Her comment was typical and not unlike what I hear all the time as a high school teacher, but the replies and detailed comments that followed? That’s what really drove home how bad our educational partnership has become.

“I don’t remember school ever being this ridiculous,” replied one mom, followed by another, “You think 6th grade is bad, wait until 7th. All my kid does is homework, from the second he walks in the door.” One dad grudgingly admitted, “I can’t even figure out how the online program works. Am I the only one who can’t access the assignments?” Then, from a resigned mom, “I finally pulled my kid out and put her in private school so she could actually be a kid and enjoy life a little. Her new school cares about learning and doesn’t spend the whole year preparing for standardized tests.”

And these were just the first few comments. They continued, many with heavy use of collective personal pronouns: our project, our time, our exhaustion.  “We have four hours of homework every night!” one parent lamented. I couldn’t help but notice her use of the word we. What is this we she spoke of? We shouldn’t have anything, right? After all, it’s not the parents’ homework, nor is it their responsibility. Or is it?

Who is to blame for the shared frustration students and parents have toward schools? Well, I think I might have the answer.

As the author of a book on parenting teens, I spend a good bit of time talking to parents, and the questions they ask of me are as insightful as the advice I offer them. The other night, I was speaking to a group of parents about helping their children become more responsible and prepared for life after high school. A middle school parent raised her hand and said, “I hear what you’re saying and I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that the school doesn’t let me live out what you’re saying and what I know is best for my kid. They EXPECT me to check my kids’ homework every night. They even make me sign to prove that I did it! They TELL me to sign up for gradebook alerts and call the minute I have a concern. I want to give my kids responsibility, but the school makes me feel guilty if I’m not involved in every aspect of my kids’ education.”

My advice to this mom was to follow her instincts. She knows her kids better than anyone else in the world, and she instinctively knows that parents aren’t supposed to hold their kids’ hands forever. Doing what is right for your kids is more important than letting a school guilt you into becoming overinvolved and enabling.

Parents are being made to feel that they must be the pivotal force in all of their kids’ decisions and responsibilities, and if they’re not, well, they must not be good parents. So as a natural consequence, parents now view school as just as much their domain as their kids’. And why not? They’ve been given instantaneous access to every grade their kids earn. They get lessons on how to navigate the gradebook system and set their phones to alert them each time a grade is entered. Nightly, they check assignments online, access school calendars, and receive notifications about homework expectations and due dates, tests, and quizzes. They can download the course syllabus, study guides, teacher notes, and handouts that their kids dropped on the floor or stuffed in a folder. The parents really are doing school. No wonder they refer to homework and projects as ours rather than theirs.

Oh, the hypocrisy. We chastise and poke fun at parents who won’t loosen the reigns, dubbing them Helicopter Parents. But when they try to step back, try to let their kids learn and stumble and even face failure and learn to overcome it, they’re blamed and shamed for being uninvolved. No wonder everyone feels as if they’re in a no-win situation.

So again I ask, who’s really to blame? And the answer is all of us. Involved parents make for successful kids and all the data supports that. But the minute parents start referring to schoolwork and grades as ours, they’ve stepped over the line. Schools, quit asking the impossible of parents. Quit asking them to attend school all over again. Quit making projects so intense that parents take them on in order to have just a few minutes in the day to relax a little with their kids, and quit expecting them to know every little thing their kids are doing at school. They have their own lives! Let them live them!

And parents, quit letting schools pressure you into conforming to a philosophy to which you do not subscribe. If your kids have four hours of homework every night, call the principal and ask him or her why that’s necessary. Question the validity and value of the assignments. Ask why eight hours of desk work a day isn’t enough. Insist that your child have downtime, time to play and be involved in extracurricular activities that are healthy and balanced. And don’t fold to the pressure to be hyper-involved. Do what feels right.

If I sound upset – about to hurl as I read another Facebook post about the insanity that has become our educational expectations – it’s because this nonsense that has evolved over the years has taken hold of our common sense – all of the things we used to know to be true – and we are now allowing others to dictate our levels of parenting. Our own parents never would have stood for that.

The fact of the matter is that it is time to push back. It’s time for parents and school administrators to form a united front against a well-intentioned but woefully misinformed government that is forcing curriculum and standardized testing on our kids. It’s time to halt testing companies and other educational dictators from making money off our kids’ – and our own – exhaustion.

How can you learn to let your kids do school instead of you? Check out Teenagers 101.

Five parenting tips to start the school year right

Parenting is tough, and each school year brings anxiety and hope: What will my children accomplish this year? How will they grow? Will they be happy? Below are five tips to guide you through the year. I promise you that if you follow them, you will take a huge step in raising responsible, independent kids.

  1. Vow to grow your kids’ independence by stepping back. Kids must learn how to advocate for themselves, how to talk to adults, and how to resolve conflicts constructively. They will never learn if you keep doing it for them.
  2. Love them enough to let them fail. Kids MUST learn how to overcome adversity, or they will find themselves in the real world being crushed by every hard knock. Failures in school are actually small failures in the scope of life. Don’t deprive your kids of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
  3. Facilitate. Do not control. It’s okay to help with homework by explaining an ambiguous concept or helping your children work a problem, but that’s where your help should end. Instead, encourage your kids to ask teachers for extra help and teach them to persevere through difficult work. Learning and “doing school” is their job, not yours.
  4. Make school their number one priority. This means they arrive on time and every day. Work, extracurriculars, sports – they’re all great, but they’re secondary to school. Make sure your kids go to bed at a decent time, without their cell phones, and a set time is built into every day for homework, reading, and thinking – no distractions.
  5. Partner with your children’s teachers. They are your allies and you both want the same thing – for your children to be successful. Teach your children to respect their teachers by modeling that respect yourself. Give teachers the benefit of the doubt and extend to them the same grace you want them to extend to your children.

I share hundreds more tips like these in my book Teenagers 101. Read it now and start the school year with all the information you need to help your kids find success!

Report cards and scores: the real picture

I stumbled upon an old box the other day. I was in the attic looking for something I hadn’t seen since our last move, when I discovered a box of treasures. This box held school memorabilia, forgotten keepsakes my mom had sent me when she cleaned out her house. It showcased trophies, award certificates, photos and… drum roll, please… report cards. While each of the items in the box revealed something about me, I found the report cards most interesting because they weren’t what I remembered about myself. Sure, I had A’s in English, which is par for the course for a future English teacher and writer. But that A in chemistry didn’t hold much water the next year in college, when I had to beg for a Mercy D. And the C in Physics, which made me wince all these years later, never affected my life one bit. It was interesting, to say the least, to view those report cards in retrospect, to compare them to the person I’ve become since.

Of course, hindsight’s 20-20, which is why I’m sharing this with today’s parents. I want you to realize that you really, truly have to question whether the final report cards that are sent home in the next few weeks are an accurate depiction of your children’s intellect. Yes, I know I’m a teacher and I’m not supposed to say things like this. But stay with me a minute. We teachers commonly refer to your kids’ individual scores on assignments as “snapshots,” and with good reason. They are single camera clicks of your children’s understanding of one concept or unit of study. A series of photos comprises a year’s worth of pictures. The final report card, then, is like a photo album, a collection of snapshots that shows a comprehensive picture of what your kids have accomplished during their 10 months in our classroom. That’s why I tell parents all the time to stop obsessing about single grades (single snapshots or moments in time) and instead focus on the overall album (the collection of those moments, which provides a much more accurate depiction of what your kids know and can do.)

And while we’re on the topic of snapshots, let’s talk about standardized test results, which are pouring in during this time and which require much more discernment. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: We teachers often land somewhere on the spectrum between patiently tolerating and outright hating standardized tests. Talk about the Mother of all snapshots. Sit in a room with a pencil, color in dots for a few hours, and answer a bunch of questions based on, well, just about anything you may have learned during your lifetime, and imagine the picture that develops. Would that one picture capture your strengths, your resolve, your abilities, your drive, or your character? Or would it be just like a single photo – deceptive for its utter inability to demonstrate the complexity of a multi-dimensional person. Shoot, how many of us would be on the streets, peddling for change right now, if our entire futures were predicted by our SAT scores? It’s a snapshot, parents, and a highly blurry one at that.

End of year report cards provide a much fuller picture, one with depth and a few more nuances, and one that speaks to strengths, resolve, abilities, and the rest. But report cards aren’t perfect either. My husband took AP English in high school and earned a B on his final report card, yet he couldn’t name a book he’s read in the last 20 years, and he still shortens Congratulations to read “Congrads.” His  grade did exactly what it was supposed to do – reveal how he did that year in English, and I have no doubt it was accurate. But it did little else in the way of predicting his future success in a completely different field of study or foreshadowing the spectacular person he would become. It was valuable for what it offered at that time, but now it is forgotten, unimportant, just one of thousands of stepping stones in a very long path to success.

So parents, when the report card comes home from school, try to take it for what it is – a photo album of your children’s learning, effort, and ability to demonstrate understanding. It is valuable information because it shows you weaknesses, strengths, and room for growth. But it’s not future-stifling or world-ending. Likewise, when the standardized test score is posted, remember that it’s just a snapshot representing one test, taken on one day, under who knows what conditions, mood, or attitude.

When dealing with single grades, standardized tests, and snapshots of your kids’ understanding, keep this in mind:

Sometimes, a picture isn’t worth a thousand words. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a picture.

For more on understanding your children’s grades, check out my book Teenagers 101.

3 words that will drive your kid toward success

Ever wonder what separates kids who have a thirst for knowledge and an internal drive for achievement from those who are content to spend their days lying on the couch playing video games? Ever notice the difference between kids who manage their lives with confidence and those who stress beyond reason? While some of what you see is inherent personality – nature versus nurture, as we call it – much is learned behavior that can be altered with the right parenting approach, and it begins with three little words: Do your best.

When parents tell their kids to do their best, it sounds entirely different to kids than the alternative expectations, namely:

  • I expect A’s from you. Nothing less than an A is acceptable.
  • You better pass this class.
  • You can’t afford to mess up your GPA.
  • Do whatever you have to do to get an A.
  • Give the teacher whatever you have to, even if it doesn’t make sense. Just get a good grade.

Have you used any of these expressions in an attempt to motivate your child? If so, you may be doing more harm than good. Stressing grades over true learning and understanding has a number of negative side effects:

1. It creates short term motivation that only lasts until a test is over or a project is completed. When that happens, most if not all of the content is forgotten, begging the question What’s the point?

2. It fosters motivation based in fear rather than accomplishment. Kids do what is required because they’re afraid of the consequences if they don’t. But when you’re no longer there to instill the fear, where will their motivation come from?

3. It creates a stressor in teens’ already stressed lives that actually inhibits learning. Yes, stress can paralyze even the strongest adults; imagine what it does to teens.

4. It creates a “success at all costs mentality,” which can lead to cheating, dishonesty, and a sacrifice of moral character and ethics.

5. It builds resentment toward you that hurts the parent-child relationship and breeds anxiety in the home, the one place that should be your child’s safe haven.

6. It devalues education and learning by reducing it to nothing more than a letter grade. If you want to kill your kids’ love of learning, stress the letter grade.

The other day in class, my students, who are in the midst of SAT/ACT testing, asked me what kind of student I was in high school and how I did on my tests. I wish I could have captured the looks on their faces when I told them my very average SAT score. Here was their teacher, someone they’ve identified as smart, someone with a doctoral degree and a book or two under her belt, revealing that she had a mediocre SAT score. Now they were curious – how did I get into a competitive college, was I a straight A student, and how did I develop such an obvious, infectious love of learning? Why am I so driven? Were my parents hard on me? Did they make me retake the SAT multiple times?

No, I explained. All my parents ever said to me were three little words – Do your best. The emphasis was never on a letter. It was on valuing myself and facing every challenge with the mentality that I would use my strengths and overcome my weaknesses, so that regardless of the result, I would always know that I did my best.

My question to you is, what more can you ask of your child? Is an A more important than your child’s absolute best effort? Are good grades more important than your child’s love of learning?

Ask me how many kids, upon hearing my story of how I was raised, turned to each other and said, “I wish my parents had that philosophy.” You may be getting results from the “You must make A’s” pressure, but trust me, they’re not the results you want.

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In college, my parents added “Have fun” to the normal “Do your best.” I’m just as grateful for that piece of advice. And I still managed to graduate.

For more tips like these, check out my book Teenagers 101.