Monthly Archives: March 2011

Parents’ Guide to Social Networking

Eighty-two percent of children between the ages of 14 and 17 use social networks, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  A generation ago, parents could monitor their children’s’ social activity much more easily.  Today, with the proliferation of social networks such as Facebook, Bebo, Myspace and Formspring and the ubiquity of computers and smartphones, your kids could be sitting right in the room with you having completely inappropriate conversations with their friends or with people you don’t even know.  Moreover, these social networks intrude on time that would otherwise be spent on homework or studying.

So, what’s a parent to do?  We don’t have to be hapless Luddites in the face of this technological onslaught. GCP has gathered a few tips and tools to help you stay on top of your child’s digital presence.

Computer Access

While it may not be practical or effective to insist that your children do all of their work on a computer in a common area, you can insist that they use their devices in the open (not behind closed bedroom doors) and allow you access at any time.

Social Networking Sites

Despite the fact that Facebook and other social networking sites have a minimum user age of 13, many kids flout this by lying about their age, and many parents permit them to. Don’t give in to that temptation.  That age requirement is a direct response to federal laws that exist to protect children from inappropriate web content.  Additionally, parents send a dangerously mixed message to their children about honesty if they tell them that it is okay to pose online as being older than they are.

Before your child sets up an account on a social network, have a conversation with him about privacy and his digital footprint. Explain that once something is online it never goes away.  Their digital information can (and is likely to) be accessed by school admissions officers, employers, and their friends’ parents.  Strongly suggest that they only “friend” people that they know personally, rather than friends of friends or people who initiate friend requests.  Stress that they should not post personal information such as their address or bank account numbers.  Insist that they “friend” you AND give you their password, so that you can have complete access to their account.  Most importantly, monitor their web presence regularly.

Cyberbullying and Predators

We have all seen how adults can lose their inhibitions due to the anonymity of the Web. People will say things online that they would never have the courage or cruelty to say to someone in person.  That tendency is exacerbated by adolescence and social networks are an ideal forum for ganging up on another child away from adult supervision.  There have been countless stories in the news of children being tormented and even driven to suicide by cyberbullying.   As a parent, you have the responsibility to ensure that your child is neither the victim nor the perpetrator of such attacks. Talk with your children about cyberbullying. Tell them to come to you immediately if they are the object of any online taunts or teasing.  Advise them not to post insults, foul language or anything in their posts, including videos, that they wouldn’t want their grandmother to read or see. Let them know that they could be prosecuted for doing these things. It sounds extreme, but schools and parents are regularly involving the police in cases of extreme cyberbullying. If they have any doubts, just share this article with them.

In addition, adults posing as teenagers can establish online relationships with kids and lure them into meeting in person. This is why it is essential to regularly monitor your children’s online activity. Check your children’s social media sites and review their texts on a weekly basis. Randomly change the day so that your children don’t delete or bury information in an attempt to outsmart you.  When you’re monitoring, it’s critical to understand the shorthand that kids use online and in texting.  A list of common abbreviations used online or in texts can be found here: 20 Internet Acronyms Every Parent Should Know.  There are also a variety of tools that will filter and monitor your child’s computer surreptitiously.  The website, www.getnetwise.org has a tool that will help parents find the best monitoring programs based on the information that they’d like to filter and the applicable operating system.

Like it or not, we’re in a brave new world of technology which can be difficult to keep up with.  However, our parental responsibilities are the same in the virtual world as in the real world, to guide and protect our children and help them make responsible choices.

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Great Board Games

Here’s an idea for family fun this Spring Break season or on any rainy weekend: board games.  Sounds corny, perhaps, but you can have a great time playing board games with your children.  It is a golden opportunity to spend time together without any screens, and a good way to build skills, confidence and good sportsmanship (which you must demonstrate when your little one kicks your boo-boo).  My family has played a lot of games over the years, on the road and at home, and we have fond memories of some marathon sessions.  Here are some of our favorite games:

Classics:

Monopoly (2-8 players, ages 8 and up):  You can get a zillion specialized versions, but we like the original the best.  This game brings out the competitor in everyone.

Life (2-6 players, ages 9 and up): Your older children will get a kick out of this game, which simulates a person’s travels through his or her life, from college to retirement, with jobs, marriage, and children along the way.

Uno (2-10 players, ages 7 and up): This classic card game involves getting rid of cards until you are down to one, at which point you must shout “UNO”.  Best with four or more players.

Boggle (2 or more players, ages 8 and up): This is a game using lettered dice in a grid, which players use to form words.

Connect Four (2 players, ages 6 and up) is a good choice when there are just two players available.  They take turns dropping colored disks into a grid, each trying to be the first to get four in a row vertically, horizontally or diagonally.

Perfection (ages 5 and up):  Players take turns rushing to fit 25 differently shaped pieces into their matching holes on a board before the board pops up and the pieces fly out.  Kids love to try to beat the clock, and don’t mind “losing” when it means they can watch the pieces fly.  Great for helping younger children with shape recognition and building concentration skills.

Trouble (2-4 players, ages 5-9):  Be the first to get all four of your peg pieces around the board.  Why kids love it:  the die is encased in a bubble in the middle of the board (the “Pop-O-Matic”), which makes a cool popping sound each time you push it.  Plus, if you land on another player’s piece, you get to send him all the way back to square one.

Sorry! (2-4 players, ages 6 and up): Players race their four game pieces from Start around the board to Home, following instructions on cards they draw from a center pile.  As they move around the board they can switch places with players, and knock opponents’ pieces off the track and back to Start.

Newer games (not really board games, but a lot of fun to play):

Apples to Apples (4-10 players, ages 12 and up for regular version, 9 and up for Junior version, although kids 6 and up can handle the junior version): One of our favorites!  This card game is best played with a large group for lots of laughs.

Bananagrams (2-8 players, ages 7 and up): This is a quick-paced game where you build your own crossword puzzle using letter tiles. Everyone plays at once, so there is no waiting.  Sharpens word skills, and is portable—the tiles zip into a banana shaped case.

Scrambled States of America (2-4 players, ages 8 and up): this card game is based upon the very popular book of the same name.  Players use their reading and geography skills to collect state cards, and the one who has the most state cards at the end of the game wins.

Electronic Catch Phrase (4-16 players, ages 12 and up): Players are given a word or phrase from an electronic disk, and then speedily run through as many clues as they can until their team guesses it. Then they pass the disk before it buzzes or the other team gets the point. The more players, the more fun.  Children 8 and up can enjoy it; although the younger ones may have to skip a few phrases they might not understand.

Bop-It (ages 8 and up): Players take turns trying to follow the directions (which are heard from a speaker in the Bop-it device) at a faster and faster pace until time runs out.  A fun mental and physical challenge.

What are your favorite games?  Let us know!

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Helping Your Middle School Son Get Organized

It’s 9pm, and my middle schooler suddenly remembers that he has a history quiz tomorrow.  Where is that study sheet?   Crumpled up at the bottom of his backpack, or left in his locker?  At 9:30 we find it, buried under one of the many piles of papers on my desk, where it has been for the last two days. My son shakes his head as he walks back to his desk.   Houston, we have a problem.

It is no secret that being organized is one of the keys to and great challenges of middle school.  And unless your son is wired for neatness and efficiency (in which case you can stop reading right now), odds are he will need help at home establishing and sticking to an organizational system.  Here are some ways that you can help your son to get on the right track, even if you are not the most organized person yourself.  While this information is good to have at the beginning of the school year, organizational issues often appear later in the year, as the paper flow and assignments increase.  It is never too late to get organized.

Helping your son become an organized student involves focusing on four things at home and at school: space, supplies, planner, and follow-up.

Space:  At home, work with your son to create a consistent and comfortable study space, and designate a regular time each day for him to sit there to do his work.  Consider a place away from his bedroom, where many distractions loom.  His study space needs to stay neat and organized. To minimize the stacks of paper that can pile up, he should go through his backpack at least once a week to decide what he needs to keep in it and what can be left at home.  Encourage him to date every paper as soon as he gets or creates it, as this will help him determine what he needs and doesn’t need to carry around.  Pick a regular day to sort through the papers in his backpack and on his desk with him each week.  The papers to be left at home should be separated by subject, and kept in files. At school, designate one day a week (optimally the same day) for him to clear all papers from his locker and bring them home for sorting and filing.

Supplies:  Most schools have recommendations for what supplies students will need.  In addition to the school supplies, make sure you get supplies for a home filing system (file folders, file box) so he has a place to put his older work, which should be separated by subject and placed in chronological order.

Planner:  A daily academic planner is a critical component of your son’s organizational plan.  If his school doesn’t require a planner, make sure you buy one for him.  Insist that each day he writes down all homework assigned that day and all tests/quizzes announced in class for all academic classes. This can be tougher to do when teachers don’t write assignments on the board, or if they hand out assignment sheets that list multiple weeks of homework at a time.  Let your son know that it is his job to find out what the teacher wants and record it for that day. At he end of the day, before he leaves school, he should stop and look at the planner to make sure he has all the books, handouts and folders he needs for that night’s work.

Follow up:  For all students learning these systems, consistency is key.  This is where parents can be very helpful.  Check in with your son when he gets home, or ask whomever is with him at home to do so, to make sure he has written his assignments in the planner, brought home all necessary books/papers and has a plan for tackling his homework.  Remind him to pack his backpack at night and take the time then to make sure that he has everything he’ll need for the next day.

A few additional tips for parents:

Resist the temptation to organize his schoolwork for him.  If you do all of the work for him, it might get done more quickly, and eliminate some nagging (you) and sulking (him), but ultimately you are not helping him learn how to do it himself.

Have patience.  This is a marathon, not a sprint.  It takes some time to develop new habits, particularly ones he is not necessarily interested in developing.  You may want to set up a reward system for his consistent completion of several of the key daily rituals of getting organized.  Be forewarned: despite his (and your) best efforts, things will slip and mistakes will be made. Take deep breaths and persevere.

This is not about you.  This is about helping your son build skills, not about your lack (or abundance) of them.  Middle school has changed a lot since you were there.  The curricula today includes teaching children metacognitive strategies, which teaches them how to think about what they are thinking; not only the skills and results, but the processes used to get these results.  This has led to a greater focus on helping children build the scaffolding (i.e., the study and organizational skills) for learning.  For most parents, organizational skills were something you learned (or didn’t learn) on your own, and were not generally taught in school.  So forgive yourself if you are a mess, and focus on what your son needs to do to make sure he doesn’t follow in your footsteps.

Since we have implemented these tools, my son is now keeping better track of his work, and my (still) paper piled desk is no longer a hiding place for his papers.  The process of getting and staying organized requires quite a bit of time and focus for your son and for you as well.  But the rewards of less stress (for you both), and more confidence in the learning process are well worth the effort.

Resources:

Peters, Ruth A.  “ How To Get Kids Organized for Middle School.”  http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20425248/ns/today-parenting/

Williams, Julie.  “Organizing for Boys: Getting Your Guy Through Middle School.”   www.education.com/magazine/article/Organizing_for_Boys/

Williams, Julie.  “Organizing for Boys: What Parents Need to Know.” www.education.com/magazine/article/Organizing-goals-middle-school-boys/

Conversation with Learning Specialist, NYC Independent School, March 10, 2011.

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GCP In The News

Marc Aronson, an author and editor who writes a blog called “Nonfiction Matters” for the website schoolibraryjournal.com, reviews our blog in his latest post which can be found here.   Take a look at this and browse through his other posts while you are there.

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GCP Sidebar: Homework Helpers

At GCP we are always on the lookout for resources that can help parents boost our sons’ (and daughters’) achievement.   Below are some sites that may be helpful:

Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org)  This site, created by Sal Kahn, has over 2100 videos which feature mini lessons and  self-paced exercises covering math (from basic arithmetic to advanced calculus), science (biology, chemistry, astronomy and physics) and history.  Most of the tutorials are on math and science subjects, but the library is growing quickly.  Parents can sign up as coaches and monitor their children’s progress.  Best of all, it’s free!

Fact Monster Homework Center (www.factmonster.com/homework) Fact Monster provides free homework help in geography, history, language arts, math, science, social studies, writing/research and study skills.  While the material on this site could be helpful to all grades, it seems principally geared for third through eighth graders.   It is created by Pearson Education, which publishes educational textbooks.

Jishka.com (www.jishka.com)  Students can post homework questions online and get free homework help from volunteer tutors. The site welcomes questions from all grade levels (kindergarten through college) and claims that questions are almost always answered within a couple of days.  Students can also chat with live tutors for homework help in various school subjects including math, science, social studies, language arts.

Yahoo Kids Homework Help (http://kids.yahoo.com/directory/School-Bell) A directory of  websites for specific academic needs. A hodgepodge of educational resources, including potential homework help.

Multnomah Homework Center (www.multcolib.org/homework) This homework resource database, compiled by librarians in Multnomah County, Oregon, directs students to sites which can provide resource material for homework/school projects.

Grammar Slammer (www.englishplus.com/grammar) This  grammar resource has tips on style and usage, capitalizing, abbreviation, punctuation, and common grammar mistakes and choices.

Do you have any favorite homework helper sites to add to this list?  Please leave a comment and share them with us!

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The ABC’s of Tutoring

When should you hire a tutor and what type of tutor is best for your child?  GCP sat down with several established tutors who work with students in Maplewood, New Jersey and New York City to get some expert advice on what to look for, what to expect and how best to work with tutors.

A threshold question is when parents should seek the assistance of tutors.  According to Sasha Gronim of Tutor Associates in New York City, parents should seek out tutors for their students whenever they are struggling in an academic subject, preparing for a standardized test or seeking extra enrichment in a subject that they enjoy.  Jennifer Payne Parrish of the Academic Resource Center in Maplewood, New Jersey recommends that parents not limit their use of tutors to remediation, but engage a tutor whenever “academic goals change,” such as the desire to improve from a “B” to an “A” in a particular subject.  JoAnn Smith of the Little Angels Literacy Program in Maplewood, New Jersey recommends tutoring for all students in need of supplemental help, whether the student is simply in need of remediation or has a learning disability.

Once you’ve decided to engage a tutor, what credentials should you look for?  All of the experts we spoke with agreed that experience and subject matter expertise are key attributes.  It is not necessary to limit yourself to tutors who are certified teachers, unless your child has learning disabilities. Smith states that for those students, it is critical to engage tutors with advanced degrees or certificates in the particular instructional models used with the learning disabled.  Gronim stresses that tutors need to be able to “build a rapport with a child and communicate clearly and effectively.”

Parents also have to decide whether their child would benefit from a small group setting or one on one sessions.  According to Payne Parrish, individual sessions are preferable if the student needs to focus on a specific weakness or concept, rather than just reinforce and review material that has been covered in school.  Gronim adds that “many of the learning obstacles present in the classroom are replicated in a small group setting.”  Smith stresses that while one on one sessions are critical for children with attention deficit disorders or behavioral issues, children with similar weaknesses can benefit from a small group setting.

All three professionals stressed that it was important for parents to support the tutor’s work between sessions.   Smith stated that the parents should “partner with the tutor to practice the instruction delivered during that week…and follow any suggestions/recommendations that the tutor recommends with consistency.”  Gronim concurs that “keeping systems established by the tutor in place” is important and added that “most importantly, parents can help the tutor by communicating regularly with the tutor about their personal insights about the child.”

Tutoring sessions can range from 60 to 90 minutes and can be as frequent as four to five times per week or as infrequent as once every few weeks before important exams.  Costs vary dramatically.  In New York City, according to Gronim the range can be from $75 per hour to as high as $1000 an hour, with typical rates between $100 and $200.  In Essex County, New Jersey, the range is from $50 per hour to approximately $200 per hour.

Given the significant cost involved, parents should not hesitate to ask the tutors when they can expect to see an improvement in their child’s grades. Payne Parrish says that while parents can expect to see immediate improvement on quizzes, they should not anticipate significant improvement earlier than three months.  Gronim says that the pace of a student’s improvement depends upon how much catching up there is to do, but that parents should expect to see immediate improvement on tests, quizzes and essays and more substantive improvement in the course of one month.  All in all, though, if parents choose experienced tutors who develop a bond with their children, they’ll find that it is money well spent.

Resources:

Sasha Gronim, Tutor Associates, New York, NY (sasha@tutorassociates.com)

Jennifer Payne Parrish, PhD, Academic Resource Center, Maplewood, NJ (jparrish@arc4me.com)

Jo-Ann Smith, Little Angels Literacy Program, Maplewood, NJ (lalpmrsjoann@aol.com)

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Dr. Ronald Ferguson: What Parents Can Do

Are Black and Hispanic college educated parents doing all that they should to help their children learn?  Ask Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, and he will point to Table A8 in his book Towards Excellence With Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap (Harvard Education Press, 2007), which justifies the question.   This table organizes the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading, math and science scores for 12th graders by race/ ethnicity and parental educational level.  Not surprisingly, children of every racial group do better on average when their parents have more education.  What is surprising is that in all subjects, Black and Hispanic students with the most highly educated parents (16 or more years of schooling) scored considerably lower on average than the white students in the same category.  In fact, the Black students’ scores correlated more closely with white students whose parents are only high school graduates, and in some instances with white students whose parents are high school dropouts.

Dr. Ferguson, an MIT trained economist who is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, has been traveling around the country visiting racially mixed public high schools, collecting data on the students and the school districts, and determining ways to close the racial achievement gap.  He has determined that closing the gap in U.S. schools involves skillful parenting along with transformative school reform.  While a large part of effective parenting is tied to the availability of resources to the parents, Ferguson’s research has shown that learning-at-home gaps appear at all socio-economic levels.  It further indicates that college educated Black parents seem on average to be less focused on having an academic environment at home (e.g., they have fewer books at home, spend less time reading, doing science projects and playing games with their children) than their white counterparts.  Why is this and what can we do about it?

“Parents are busy, it is hard to summon the mental energy to focus on this when you get home,” Dr. Ferguson suggested.  He believes to some extent it is also a lifestyle decision.  Parents are settled into routine ways of allocating time, effort, attention, and resources to activities, and “we don’t always know what it looks like to do things differently,” he notes.  What does it involve?  Dr. Ferguson explains, “ It is creating a rich intellectual lifestyle at home for your child from birth.  It includes reading to your child, talking about what you are reading, focusing on how much talking and interacting you are doing with your children.  It also includes paying attention to what you celebrate in terms of achievement, celebrating those ‘a-ha’ moments of intellectual discovery with your children.”

Dr. Ferguson acknowledges that the statistics showing a persistent achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students across socio-economic and parents’ education levels are disturbing, but believes that we cannot improve what we fear and refuse to confront.  He included the NAEP score chart in his book at the urging of Black and Hispanic parents, many of them college graduates, who heard about these statistics during his presentations across the country.  They were concerned about these findings and believed that their inclusion in the book would motivate others, as it did them, to find ways of responding. Dr. Ferguson does not suggest that enriching the intellectual life at home will instantly close the gap.  But he does believe there are things parents can do to make a difference.

He offers an example: “Most parents read to their three and four year old children.  But there are different ways to read to them.   Rather than read the book from cover to cover without stopping, you should have a mixture of reading and discussion during the reading session.  Asking questions like ‘What would you have done here?’ and ‘What do you think will happen next?’ engages the imagination and encourages higher order thinking.  Reading with a mix of easier questions (prompting your child to recall something you’ve already read) and the more engaging and challenging ones build comprehensive skills.”

Dr. Ferguson has compiled a list of “Research Based Tips for High Achievement Parenting” which he often distributes when talking to groups of parents.   The list, which can be downloaded here, should be required reading for all of us.  Ferguson warns, however, that a focus on the list must be preceded by the fundamental question: What is the goal for your child?  “Every child is not born to be a straight A student. Different kinds of children have different skills,” he notes.  “Life is a project, and a parent has to help each child figure out what his or her project will be.  If they have no project, and can’t come up with one, parents have to help them find one.”  The tips on his list are designed to help parents help their children become engaged, life long learners, as opposed to just helping them do well in school.

Dr. Ferguson and his wife have raised three boys, and he understands the special challenges Black boys face. “Along with their race and gender identity comes a certain expectation of swagger, a level of cool and dangerousness, a demeanor that ensures no disrespect. In addition to focusing on their schoolwork, Black boys in school are trying to figure out ‘How do I become a Black man?’  ‘How do I signal my authenticity?’  It is a lot for a young man to figure out.”

At the end of the day, Ferguson opines, “Kids learn from all the things they experience in life. They will be well prepared if they can spend high quality time on task across lots of different experiences”.  While he warns there is no magic bullet, his research has indicated that there are combinations of simple and more complex suggestions for parents to follow.  The conclusion of his chapter on “The Role of Parenting and School Reform” says it best: “In the end, developing and sustaining the collective will, skill and discipline of adults to effectively prioritize learning by children, including other people’s children, is the central challenge we face in a long-term, nationwide movement for building excellence with equity.”

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GCP Sidebar: Parent Groups

Patricia H. Shimm, author of “Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert’s Guide to the Tough and Tender Years”, has run the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development for over 20 years and  knows the benefits of parent groups.  Shimm established parent groups as part of the Toddler Center program since its inception, and has run scores of them for decades.

GCP: Why form a Parent Group?

Shimm:  Parents need a place to talk with each other without their children around in order to become better and more effective parents.  Parenting is tough to do in isolation.  We all have issues with our children, such as “my son won’t sleep through the night”, “I don’t like the way my child talks to me”, or “This teacher is being unfair to my son”.  The parent group weighs in on the issues and offers perspectives and advice.  We often can’t solve our own problems, but we can look at other people’s problems and help them with theirs.

GCP: What are the essential elements of a Parent Group?

Shimm:  Ideally the group should have between 6 and 10 members and a leader, preferably someone with professional experience with child rearing issues.  The leader shouldn’t be opinionated or intrusive, but be able to draw out the less talkative parents and make everyone feel comfortable in sharing their concerns.

No one in the parent group is allowed to reveal any details of any group conversations to anyone outside of the group.  Everyone in the group has to be able to trust that his or her issues will be kept confidential.

GCP:  How do you start a group?

Shimm:  Gather people who seem compatible and comfortable with one another.  It helps if they have children of similar ages. Find someone with experience in running a parent group: schools and universities are good places to look. One of the parents in the group should act as the administrator—someone who coordinates the meetings and collects the leader’s fees (if one has been hired). The group needs to decide where and when to meet (someone’s home is best, but a café or coffee shop or restaurant can work, as long as there can be privacy) and how often (weekly or bimonthly helps ensure that issues are dealt with as they arise).

GCP: Things to avoid/tips for success?

Shimm:  Civility must rule in group sessions.  Never ridicule someone’s actions or feelings. Never embarrass or insult anyone.  All advice must be given and received in the spirit of helping people become more thoughtful and better parents.

It helps if the first session starts with the leader asking everyone what he or she wants from the group so that everyone knows each other’s goals.  Honesty and candor are critically important elements of the group.  And laughter is essential. You have to be able to laugh at your parenting mistakes while getting advice about how not to make them again.

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