Cyber Safety for Today’s Teens

It goes without saying that technology has fully inserted itself into most aspects of our day-to-day lives—and children and teens are no exception. Children are learning to swipe smartphones before they learn to turn the pages of a book, and many of them are swiping on their own devices. For parents, the endless exploration of technology raises many concerns for children and teens. Parents need not only be aware of what their children are getting from the constant connectivity, but also what they may be putting out into the digital universe. Yes, the horror stories surrounding teens and technology are vast and worrisome, but these hard-learned lessons can provide other families with safe cyber practices that will make all the difference for security and peace of mind.

Limit screen time, especially for youngsters. We may have grown to rely on our devices in the adult world. I, myself, use my phone for everything from navigation, to paying bills, to making grocery lists—the list (no pun intended) goes on and on. However, for children, it is essential that their screen time be limited and purposeful. Use screen time as an occasional reward, but make sure that everyone is clear about how long they can use the device and for what purposes.

If you feel that your child must have a phone for staying in touch, consider phones or plans that provide programmed options for usage. For instance, there are ways to program children’s phones so that they are only able to call or text a set list of phone numbers. You can also set restrictions on how data is used or what websites or apps your children can access. The key here is to keep your children’s circle small when introducing them to their first phone—the stricter the parameters, the more peace of mind parents will have about children using technology.

Be aware of your child or teen’s social media presence. Keep a very watchful eye on your child’s use of social media and limit access to devices when concerns arise. You should insist on access to or control over your teen’s social media accounts whenever necessary. If you suspect that your child is cyberbullying or being cyberbullied, take the phone. Keeps records of any evidence that your child is being bullied, including text messages, screen shots, profile posts or photos, etc. Schools today are cracking down on bullying; however, parents must present documented, repeated instances of harassment or bullying before school officials will intervene.

Along the same lines as cyberbullying concerns, parents should monitor social media accounts to ensure that children are protecting themselves and being digitally responsible. Teens today are so concerned with obtaining “likes” and gaining “followers” that they lose sight of how vulnerable they may be making themselves online. Explain to them that, even with privacy settings, nothing is 100% private when it comes to posts, comments, photos, etc. Make sure that teens are not using personal information, like a full name, specific address, current location, or school. Social media sites make it extremely easy to tag one’s location, but too often teens fail to consider who might be keeping tabs on their location. Gently, but firmly, remind your children that not everyone on social media is who they claim to be.

Talk about the permanency of our digital footprints. This means that, once posted online, ownership no longer belongs to you. Even deleted material is not ever fully erased if even one person has captured, saved, or screenshotted the post. Not only can deleted posts resurface, people can edit or manipulate the photo or post in any way they choose. Teach children and teens to think carefully before making a post.

Back To School Tips

Without fail, the summer always seems to end the same way—abruptly. While families have been soaking up the sun with days filled with themed camps, pool time, beach vacations and fireflies, classrooms have been prepped for a new surge of activity. For most of us, the backpacks are buried in the closet and homework has long been forgotten. However, all of that is about to change. Signs that school is just around the corner are everywhere—the stores are stocked with school clothes, while ads are displaying the hottest new school supplies. One thing is for sure, it’s time to get in gear for the school year ahead.

  • Set a schedule. Start a school schedule at least a week prior to school. Include bedtime, morning wake-up and routine, and lunch preparation.
  • Gauge feelings. Talk to your children about their feelings and concerns.  Ask questions that prompt conversation and help them feel in control. What subjects interest them most? What friends are they excited to see? What new challenges await them?
  • Aim high. Talk to your children about the expectations for the different parts of their day. Consider creating a visual “to do” list that includes a morning routine, homework, and other responsibilities. Encourage students to check off listed items prior to leisure or screen time.
  • Drive by. Drive or walk by the school, take a tour of the classrooms, visit the website, and visualize the school day from start to finish. What will the bus ride be like? What will lunchtime entail? Where are the gym, art room, music room and restrooms?
  • Phone a friend. Reconnect with friends from last year. Schedule a play date or meet for ice cream. If your child is shy or new to the school, this is a great way to have a friend waiting on the first day of school.
  • Give control. Students often have mixed feelings about going back to school. Shop for supplies early and allow them to make selections. This decreases their anxiety, limits pressure on you, and avoids the last-minute crowds.
  • Strike a pose. Take your child shopping at his or her favorite store to pick out new school clothes. Your child’s style may not be your style, but here’s a chance to encourage positive self-image and expression.
  • Ease into it. Don’t suddenly stop summer fun, but slowly infuse learning opportunities. Take a trip to a museum, paint pottery, or visit the library.
  • Be available. As your child eases into a new school routine, regularly make time to listen to your child’s first impressions, new discoveries and fresh challenges. Be proactive in helping your child adjust and advance, and you will stay informed as new challenges arise.
  • Be an advocate. Before school starts, schedule a meeting with the school nurse, teacher, or guidance counselor to discuss significant changes, learning concerns, or summer progress. Remember to initiate a follow-up chat once school gets underway to ensure any issues were addressed.

The Science Behind Movement: How to Use it at Home

Movement and kinetic strategies have been hot topics of conversation among educators, developmental psychologists and researchers. Without getting too far into anatomical terms and rhetoric about how the brain works, scientific research supports one major claim about movement and learning: the same part of the brain that processes movement also happens to process learning, attention, and memory—the cerebellum. So in the same way that regular physical activity strengthens the muscles, movement similarly helps construct and strengthen neural pathways. Educators are finding great benefits to the application of movement—the concept of kinetic learning can also be applied at home.

When helping your child review study material for an upcoming assessment, add some aspect of movement to the routine. This can mean reciting information while jumping on the trampoline or juggling a soccer ball. Clapping or patting to keep rhythm while memorizing notes can enhance recall as well. Practice multiplication flashcards while allowing your child to bounce a ball or jump rope while keeping a steady beat. Simply pacing while studying is another small tweak that allows kids to focus solely on the material while moving continuously and methodically.

Parents may find it beneficial to start small with kinetic learning strategies—like providing a stress ball for the child to squeeze while working. The distraction level is minimal, but the concept of movement, focus, and memory still applies. Items like fidget spinners, cubes, or eraser putty, so long as they are being used properly, will have the same effect on focus and attention.

When encouraging summer reading, consider the option to listen to the book. This allows reluctant readers the opportunity to move about while listening to the text on a smartphone, play away, or other audio device. Audiobooks allow struggling readers to follow along while listening to the story. But, for restless or reluctant readers, audiobooks allow for walking, jogging, or virtually any light activity while enjoying a story.

A well-known practice—rewriting notes or study guides—promotes the same reasoning behind kinesthetic learning. The act of physically handwriting the notes, concepts, or definition repeatedly goes further than typing notes. The movement, even at the slight level that handwriting provides, helps to boost memory and recall.

In the same way that sensory tables allow toddlers and preschool-aged children to engage in messy sensory play to develop fine motor skills, cooking can has a similar effect on older children. With parent supervision, children can practice any number of skills while moving about the kitchen mixing, measuring, and whipping up snacks. Equivalent fractions, cause and effect relationships, following instructions—all of these skills take place in the kitchen while children get to move around the kitchen. If encouraging the little ones, allow them to stir cookie dough or hold the mixer on low—even the combining of ingredients can be a great learning experience that incorporates movement for little ones.

Combine movement-based games with learning at home for a fun-filled family game night! Practice vocabulary terms, historic dates, physics terms, etc., while playing charades. Pictionary is another option for the artistically-inclined. For board game lovers, plan a Scrabble match or Boggle challenge, where wordsmiths can spell and strategize while moving game pieces or rolling dice.

Positive Behavior Begets More Positive Behavior: Advice to Use at Home

I vividly remember being told things like: “Do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” Or, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” These go-to one-liners stayed with me, not because the deeper meanings sank in right away, but because it took experiences with others to see the impact that following—or not following—these adages had on myself and those around me.

As a middle school teacher, I find myself uttering these notions to teens and preteens regularly, but the truth is, these important messages should be instilled long before my 7th graders have reached my classroom. So, how can we school our children on these important, non-academic lessons before they reach the classroom?

Learn to deflect the “no” response and set the tone for future conflict resolution. This new favorite word seemingly begins as soon as children begin to speak. After “mama/dada” the word “no” becomes a frequent response to any question. Once children get a bit older, the cute “no” becomes a more defiant situation. For questions or statements that do not allow for yes or no options, remove the opportunity for children to respond with “no.” Phrase things in ways that provide children with choices: Would you like salad or peas? You can either take out the trash or fold your laundry. Would you like to stay up 15 minutes later or sleep in 15 minutes longer? Complete your homework now or lose screen time before bed.

The key is to provide options that lead kids in the right direction, while giving them a sense of agency as well.  

Encourage kind gestures, especially when others make it difficult. This is a challenging concept—even for adults at times. The instinct is to respond and react based on the behavior of those around you—if someone is cold or rude, it may subtly influence us to be standoffish. However, meeting rudeness with rudeness does nothing to allay the moment. Teach your child to challenge himself to rise above any perceived negativity from others. Positivity is often contagious, but in the off chance that the other person still does not reciprocate, your child can still feel good about the genuine attempt. Remind him that kindness does not have to be received before it is given—again, this notion is a hard pill to swallow. The more we practice the art of spreading kindness, the more intuitive and automatic it becomes.

Praise honesty, even when the truth is testing. Again, the instinct is to self-preserve, which means that kids may put themselves in the position of lying to stay out of trouble. This is totally understandable, as we have all likely fibbed to save ourselves from the truth. However, we have also learned that while dishonesty may temporarily alleviate the heat from the hot seat, it also creates bigger issues down the line. Teach your child that, even when owning the truth can be uncomfortable or damaging, it will never be as harmful as the lies you tell yourself. When your child gets into trouble, but remains honest about the situation, be sure to praise the honesty piece. Yes, she made a mistake, and that will be dealt with accordingly, but the optimistic view is that she owned her actions honestly, which exhibits maturity, morality and accountability.

Encouraging Effort Until the End: Tips for Parents to Help with Motivation

The final weeks of the school year are often filled with excitement, angst, and a touch of impatience for students, teachers, and parents alike. The quickly-approaching summer months spark joyous anticipation. While many students begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, May and June can prove to be difficult months in terms of maintaining focus and perseverance. It becomes a challenge to keep the attention of children and teens when, truth be told, they are likely daydreaming about their summer vacations.

Below are tips that parents can try at home to promote effort and motivation through the end of the school year.

  • Embrace the outdoors for studying, homework sessions, or leisurely reading. One of the main difficulties towards the end of the school year becomes the allure of the beautiful weather. Gone are the layers and umbrellas, which unfortunately means a bit of focus disperses as well. Allow your child the option to complete school work outside. Be sure that work is still the main focus, but a pleasant backdrop will help make the work time fly by a little quicker. This could mean working on the porch, in the yard, by the pool, etc. 
  • Maintain structure and continuity with the bedtime routine or weekly schedule. No matter the age, kids and teens need consistency. Yes, the days are longer and the weather is more enticing than ever. But this does not mean that bedtime expectations or nightly routines should be left by the wayside. Keep firm in your expectations to ensure that the approaching summer vacation does not derail the routines you have spent all school year building. 
  • Remind your child of his or her academic goals. Do not let vacation anticipation, field trips, pool parties, etc., to take center stage just yet. As they say, “It’s not over until it’s over.” Talk together about how hard he or she has worked this year, and the importance of maintaining that momentum to honor that determination. No one wants to see oneself unravel right at the tail end of the race—the same is true with the school year. 
  • Reflect on the year—both the hardships and the triumphs. This look back is another way to build motivation and drum up a last-minute second wind. Talk about personal growth and how to use everything gained from this school year as a foundation for the next. Looking back, as well as looking to the future, ensures that children keep their eye on the ball. 
  • Provide incentives for a job well-done. Again, we have all been there—the anticipatory angst when praying for summer break to commence. Knowing this, parents and teachers can dig into their bag of tricks to help incentivize the more reluctant or checked-out learners. If you know that your child is lacking motivation, discuss or negotiate incentives for hard work in the remaining weeks of the school year. This can mean an extra playdate, a new skateboard, a trip to the pool, etc. Hold your ground when discussing incentives, however. Children begin to grasp intrinsic motivation when extrinsic deals and expectations are set.

 

 

Homework: How to Make it Work

In the education world, homework has become a controversial topic—one in which people are greatly divided. Proponents of homework typically praise the fact that it allows students the opportunity to practice skills, self-check, and reflect on the learning. Conversely, opponents believe that homework has become “busy work,” an unnecessary or burden on young learners. Whatever your stance, most can agree that parents are the likely homework liaisons between young learners and the assignments that frustrate them. Parents are the ones to wipe the tears and pick up the pieces (sometimes literally). Thus, it is not unusual for parents to feel helpless at times when homework is getting the best of their children.

When you are feeling the pressures of homework at home, remember some of these key points:

  • Homework is not your job as the parent. Yes, you should remind, encourage, assist, and guide. However, it is to no one’s benefit that the parent handhold the child through the work. The point of homework is to assess the knowledge or skills acquired during class. If you are the one prompting answers or pulling teeth to get an assignment completed, your child is not getting the most from the learning opportunity.

  • The responsibility piece is huge when it comes to homework. On those evenings when your teen announces a surprise poster is due the following day, remember that this is not your responsibility to go on a late-night Staples spree. Will this frustrate your child? Yes. But encouraging your procrastinating adolescent to “figure it out” will end up being a greater learning moment than if you had scurried into super posterboard mom mode. Just be sure that your method and involvement as a parent matches your child’s age and genuine abilities.

  • Encourage your child to get into the habit of writing down the full details of an assignment during class. If your child or teen is unaware of the exact terms of the assignment, or its due date, the whole assignment can get lost in translation. It is not unusual that, when in a hurry, students will jot down a vague idea of the assignment, with little to no detail about how to complete it. This sloppily-scribbled, nondescript “worksheet” will not be much help when homework time begins. Instruct your child to write down the homework as specifically as possible, i.e., the page number, website, number of questions, chapters to read, or due date.

  • Stress the importance of the attempt. This is key when an assignment is becoming an overwhelming frustration for your child. Crying over geometry homework at the kitchen table will do little to motivate your child. If this happens, encourage your child to complete what she can, and explain the rest to her teacher privately. At this point, it is not about the homework points or credit. It is about the need for clarity before she can master the content or skill. Especially for the younger learners, completion for the sake of credit is not always worth the hours of frustration. Instead, send a quick email to your child’s teacher explaining the effort that your child put into the assignment. Homework is, after all, indicative of the child’s knowledge of the topic. The teacher will be appreciative of the information, as it will help to guide instruction and re-teaching strategies.

International Ask a Question Day: Tricks to Try at Home

Befittingly falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage inquiry. As parents, you know how curious and naturally inquisitive children can be.  Asking and answering questions is the best way to quench that thirst for information. So besides the go-to, “How was school today?” how else can parents encourage children to practice questioning and answering at home? And, why is the simple practice of asking questions so important to academics?

Depending on your child’s age, he or she may have a smartphone or tablet. These technologies are sometimes seen as distractions when it comes to academics. However, the educational apps available now are greatly beneficial when it comes to asking or answering questions. Apps such as VideoNot.es and Notability allow users to interact with digital or video content while taking notes on a split screen. This is especially helpful if your child struggles with handwriting; instead, children can easily type questions or observations while working through the material. These VideoNot.es will automatically save any notes or questions into a Google doc, as well, keeping all of your child’s questions saved and organized.

Encourage dinnertime questions by discussing a new topic of interest, something that will spur conversation and curiosity. Ask questions like, “If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?” But, don’t just stop there—prod for more information like, “Why that location over somewhere else?” “Who would you take with you and why?” “What types of items would you need to pack?” These questions not only give your child an opportunity to share his or her personal preferences, but they also encourage a higher level of reasoning and explanation.

Another dinner table game is the well-known party game “just questions” in which everyone is only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages children to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Participants must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

After a bedtime story prompt your child with broad questions like, “Who is the main character in the story?” Then, elevate the level of inquiry from there. Kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of thinking. For instance, you might change the original question about the main character to, “What does the main character say or do that shows us his personality?” This practice subtly adds a layer of deeper analysis to the initial, more general question.

There is no doubt about itinquiry is a lifelong practice that spans far outside the realm of the classroom. The ability to ask questions, gather relevant information, and formulate answers is an exercise that will benefit children and teens, not only as they navigate through their schooling, but as they enter adulthood and the workforce, as well. It seems like an obvious and simple skill—especially since children are so eager to ask questions—however, elevating the exercise of asking and answering questions is something that can steadily enhance engagement and learning.  

Tips to Improve Reading at Home

The benefits of fostering a love of reading at home are seemingly endless. Not only will this hobby have an inevitable positive effect on learning and academics, but strong readers also experience other lesser known benefits.  Avid reading builds study habits and improves linguistic skills, vocabulary, comprehension, analytical thinking and writing. Reading is also beneficial for reducing stress and strengthening memory. With such a vast array of benefits, reading at home should definitely be part of the regular routine.

Turn nightly reading into an adventure by making it something that your family looks forward to. Create a “special spot” for reading, such as a fort or comfy cove in the family room. Allow your children to help with the process of constructing and decorating the reading area. Be sure to include pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals to make it extra cozy. Bring flashlights and something healthy to nibble on while the family reads together. Take turns reading aloudand don’t forget to get into character!

Keep reading time consistent. Whether you are reading nightly or weekly, be sure to maintain the routine. Reading each night or weekend can be a quick, 20minute activity. The key is to keep it enjoyable, not laborious.

Casually ask questions before, during, and after reading. This should not take the form of a spit-fire question and answer session. The book talk should seem just like that—a casual conversation in which the family discusses interesting aspects of the story.

Have a cause for celebration or a reward? Treat your children with a trip to the library or bookstore. Allow him to select any book of his choice as a means of rewarding good behavior, hard work at school, or helping out around the house. Reading as a reward is a great way to associate reading with something pleasurable or gratifying.

Read your child’s book ahead of time, prior to her starting the book. Then, mark up the story with your own comments, cartoons, or questions. As she starts the book, she’ll have your special messages to build inquiry from page to page. These little notes are also a great way to introduce children to annotating and note-taking as a close reading strategy.

Take the books on the road with tablets, iPads, or audiobooks. With the prevalence of technology, eBooks make it possible to incorporate reading wherever the family goes. These technologies can be especially handy during long road trips or flights. Have your children discuss their books with the family as they finish a chapter. You can also set reading goals for the family vacation—something such as each person trying to finish their book before returning home.  

For older kids and teens, motivate with an added incentive for finishing a novel. If your teen has finished the most recent Harry Potter novel, rent the movie for him to enjoy. Then chat about which was better—the book or the movie? Finish the whole series? Plan a Harry Potter themed family dinner, complete with butter beer and boogie-flavored jelly beans…ok, maybe not!

 

How to Broaden the Social Circle: High School

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a teen’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would adolescents have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of teens’ social skills—not only do teens learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the high school level?

Encourage acceptance. This may sound simple, but building acceptance and understanding among peers, especially teenagers, can be a tricky undertaking. Have open discussions about the importance of diversity, individuality, and differences among friends. The more accepting high schoolers are, the more open they will be to befriending someone new. Not only are these conversations important for families to have with their teens, but rather they also help to teach young adults the value of acceptance and compromise—two vital qualities for college and career readiness.   

Remind your high schooler that popularity should not come at the price of making genuine friends. Again, easier said than done. However, hard lessons about friendship often revolve around the supposed need to be “in the right crowd.” The adolescent years are difficult in terms of willingness to stray from the group. However, teenagers can only benefit from making connections with others. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from core friendships. Remind your teen that it is normal to have different or varying social circles. He or she should feel comfortable having family friends, neighborhood friends, sports friends, and more. Furthermore, remind your teen that to have a good friend, one must be a good friend.

Branch out when selecting or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your teenager to try new things will not only broaden his or her horizon, rather it can also broaden his or her number of friendship groups. Your adolescent may want to try developing a new skill or hobby. Perhaps he or she could participate in a new art class, dance class, swim club, or tennis camp. These opportunities allow your teen to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss your own memories of friendships with your teen. Talk about how some of your friendships have stood the test of time, while others may have dissipated. Explain that it is normal and somewhat likely that some friendships will be fleeting. Depending on circumstances, friends come and go; some are relationships of convenience, not true compatibility. While discussing your own experiences with friends, model what it looks like to be a truly genuine friend. Puberty, confidence, self-consciousness—all of these transitional moments can make it difficult for teens to foster strong, authentic friendships. The more your teen understands what it looks like to be a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he looks for in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and loyalty. Make sure that your teen knows how to keep someone’s trust, be a good listener, and offer support when his friend needs him.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, teens can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” or because of the “cliquish” atmosphere that occurs during the teenage years. But, either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your teen that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

Increasing Motivation at Home

Dinner table questions about your child’s day may occasionally allude to the idea of motivation, but how often is motivation put at the forefront of the discussion? Since motivation is not something that we can readily teach, measure, or initiate, we may focus our attention more directly on grades, athletics, etc. However, one could argue that motivation is a major key to academic and extracurricular success. While motivation is not a one-size-fits-all skill to be acquired, there are ways that parents can encourage motivation and the strategies to boost it.

So, how exactly can parents teach the concept and importance of motivation to their children? One way of introducing the conversation is to discuss the future. This may sound cliché, but many adolescents and teens are very much focused on the here and now. Prompting thoughtful consideration of the future can be a great way to open the door on the topic of motivation. Asking questions like, “What is one sport, skill, or activity that you would like to try at some point?” Or, “What can you see yourself NOT doing as a career after school?” These questions not only encourage an interesting conversation, rather they also facilitate follow up questions directly related to motivation. For instance, if your teen says that she would love to travel abroad at some point in her schooling, talk about realistic steps that she would have to take to allow that to be an option. Is there a specific program that she has to qualify for? Are there GPA guidelines? How much money would she have to save to put towards the trip? Can she qualify for any sort of scholarship to help pay for the trip? All of these questions stem from one consideration that your child has mentioned. Yet, that one topic—traveling abroad—opens the door to discuss how your child is going to achieve that opportunity.  Having any sort of end goal in mind acts as a wonderful motivator. Likewise, teens can begin to see that much of their goals are directly related to the effort or steps that they take. They have control over the process and the achievement.

Similarly, the notion that “No one is going to do it for me, so I had better make sure that I do it for myself” is also an important motivational message. Other questions to ask your adolescent could be, “What did you accomplish all on your own today? What made you strive to achieve that goal?” Discussing motivation as a means of controlling one’s own destiny is another way to begin the conversation. In a world where adolescents and teens believe that many of their decisions are made for them by parents, teachers, or other adults, this mindset and idea of autonomy allows young people to see themselves as rulers of their own future. They must realizelike we all have at some point in our livesthat they have to make a conscious choice to “show up” in their everyday activities. They have to be willing and open to hard work and growth.

Engaging in positive self-talk is another great way to build motivation. As people, we engage in self-talk continuously and subconsciously. To ensure that teens’ inner dialogue is more positive and motivating, ask your child to jot down any self-talk that he recognizes in the moment. Try this for one day and discuss the types of things that each family member said to or about themselves. Discuss where the negative talk comes in and how it can inhibit motivation and success.

Build motivation at home and empower your child to chart and achieve his or her own destiny.