Classroom Strategies for Students with Asperger’s

As of 2013, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has reclassified Asperger’s syndrome to include it in the broader category of autism spectrum disorder. Unlike some other conditions along the spectrum, children with Asperger’s syndrome are considered “high-functioning.” This means that children and adults with Asperger’s experience are intellectually and verbally advanced, yet experience social and/or executive functioning deficits.

 

Asperger’s syndrome can be frustrating for the child and those closest to him/her. Since classrooms today involve constant social components, students with Asperger’s will likely require certain routines and strategies to help facilitate their interactions with peers and adults in and outside of school.

 

Maintain consistency

Students with any form of autism spectrum disorder thrive when they know what to expect—surprises, disruptions, or diversions from the norm are not favorable and can cause unnecessary stress. This means that teachers should specifically and deliberately introduce routines, expectations, and basic classroom guidelines and adhere to them so that all students, but especially those with Asperger’s, can adapt to the established expectations. Things such as warm-ups, explanations for homework assignments, routines for moving around or asking to leave the room—even the location of the pencil sharpener—should remain consistent.

 

If, for whatever reason, a classroom routine or school schedule must change, be sure to explain the modification to the student directly—do not just assume that he will anticipate or grasp the change. Additionally, provide a logical reason for the change. For instance, if a fire drill or weather delay has adjusted the bell schedule, make a note to print, post, or explain the day’s modified schedule and explain that the change was made to account for a shorter school day or disruption in the schedule.

 

If students have unstructured or unsupervised time, such as lunch time or transitions in middle and high school, help the student to understand what his options are during lunch and between classes, the time constraints to complete those options, and his best method or route for navigating to the next class on time.

 

Be direct

While students with Asperger’s may have an advanced vocabulary, their ability to communicate their feelings or perceptions, as well as their ability to interpret someone else’s, may be lacking. For this reason, sarcasm, exaggerations/hyperbole, euphemisms, puns, or vague expressions are often misinterpreted or confusing to students with Asperger’s syndrome. Instead of beating around the bush (see what I did there?) or using indirect phrasing, be explicit with students so that they know exactly what is being communicated. For instance, if students are about to dismiss, saying, “relax until the bell rings” could mean many different things. Instead, tell students to “remain seated quietly at your desk until the bell rings.” With a direct statement, there are no misinterpretations or misunderstandings.

 

Provide clear options

Decision-making can be a difficult undertaking for students with Asperger’s syndrome—they may become overwhelmed by their choices or worry about selecting the “best” option. It is beneficial for teachers to provide student choice, but limit the scope of those choices for students who struggle to synthesize information.

 

For example, if students are selecting one of the seven wonders for a research project, consider asking certain students what their top three wonders would be. Then discuss as a small group and model decision-making strategies. Ask students things like, “Which location do you think is the most famous or would have the most accessible information?” “Do you have background knowledge of any wonders on your list?” “Which wonder are you most curious to learn about?” “What part of the world is most intriguing? Might you choose a wonder located there?” These questions direct students to think analytically about their options, which helps when choices seem random or arbitrary.

 

Deescalate the situation  

Children with Asperger’s syndrome may have a lower threshold for irritation or annoyance, which can increase the likelihood of meltdowns in the classroom. Teachers and counselors can take proactive steps to avoid or diffuse situations when tempers flare in the classroom. Connect with parents early on—they will be able to cue you in on what might irritate or annoy their child in particular. They are also likely to have strategies for diffusing situations when they arise.

 

Consider a designated “cool down area” within the classroom equipped with flexible seating, stress balls, sketch pads for doodling or journaling, and noise-cancelling headphones. Especially for elementary and middle grades, these quiet corners allow all students the option to remove themselves from a potential conflict to regroup or decompress. This quiet, stress-free zone is especially beneficial to students with Asperger’s syndrome because frustration for them can result in all-encompassing meltdowns.

 

Checklists/check-ins  

Since students with Asperger’s often experience gaps in executive functioning skills, teachers can use simple strategies to help fill those gaps and introduce students to new methods for self-management. For complex tasks or multi-step assignments, a visual checklist can help younger students visually account for essential pieces of the assignment. The checklist also guides students as they plan and execute a project in logical order.

 

In addition to a checklist or to-do memo, teachers should plan to meet frequently with students to ensure that components are being completed and progress is getting made during independent work time. A tentative calendar or weekly work schedule could also help students to manage their class time, complete tasks in order of importance, and practice self-monitoring as they work their way through the week.

A Change of Perspective: Activities for the Classroom

While viewpoints and perspectives tend to be seen as literature-based concepts, learners can truly benefit from this critical thinking skill in any academic content. Why is perspective-taking an important skill? Of course there are the obvious social implications that hinge on one’s ability to see things from another’s vantage point—like developing empathy, navigating others’ emotions, and building deeper connections with peers. In addition, students who are able to cognizantly adopt a different perspective while learning also initiate a better understanding of the content because they are engaging with it in a new or complex way.

 

Below are classroom suggestions and various activities that foster collaboration while encouraging learners to view subjects and opinions from a different lens.

 

  • Optical illusion images are great resources for introducing the concept of multiple perspectives to students, especially for the younger groups. Images like “The old woman/young lady” are natural discussion starters for students to begin to use alternate viewpoints. Teachers can collect and project optical illusion images for students to view. Ask students to remain silent while viewing, but to capture what they seen on a capture sheet for later discussion. After an initial viewing, ask students to pair up with someone that had at least one different observation or conflicting answer on the capture sheet. Then allow pairs to explain their viewpoints to one another.
  • Visuals, such as photos from news articles, magazines, graphic novels, or even stock photos can be the springboard for introducing the concept of perspective-taking with students. Display an image from the local newspaper, preferably one that exhibits or elicits an emotion. Without providing any context or headline, ask students to respond by writing the emotion that the subject or onlooker in the photo might be feeling. Ask students to discuss in groups, specifically focusing on why they think the person in the photo feels this particular way. Next, provide students with the text or article—ask them if their assumptions were correct. As the conversation progresses, ask students to consider the last time that they felt a similar emotion. What caused it? How was their scenario different from the actual news article/event? These group discussions allow students to not only connect with and relate to the article, but also connect with each other through speaking and listening.
  • A lesson around homophones and homographs can be a great way to spark discussions about perspectives and cultural implications. For instance, take a look at the homographs below:

minute – tiny OR a unit of time

moped – behavior demonstrating sadness OR a motorcycle

number – more numb OR a numerical value

row – a line OR to propel a boat

sewer – a drain OR a person who sews

wave – to greet someone by moving the hand OR sea water coming into shore

Depending on a person’s experiences, country/language of origin, home life, environment, etc., the homographs above could generate a number of different instantaneous visuals or subconscious thoughts from person to person. Especially as students age and their abilities to take different vantage points evolves, it is important that they explore the reasons behind all of our different perspectives. Many times, our cultural identities shroud our understanding of the “other side.” Therefore, these intentional practices allow students to come face-to-face with their own perspectives and to question them.

  • “Save the last word for me” is a close reading activity that also prompts discussion and alternate viewpoints. Students begin by reading the same passage independently. Readers are instructed to mark or highlight the line or sentence that they believed was most significant within the passage. One volunteer reads his chosen/highlighted sentence, but provides no reasoning or explanation as to why he considers it to be the most significant. Group mates must add their own interpretation of why that line is significant to the passage; the original volunteer speaks last and confirms/elaborates/clarifies his original choice. This activity encourages discourse around a common text, but relies heavily on the task of “getting into another person’s head.” Students must consider why their peer selected that specific line as significant, and can then speak on how they agree or perhaps found a different line to be more crucial.

 

Enrichment in the Classroom

Differentiation is a best practice for teaching and learning that you will hopefully see in every classroom. However, much of the focus and attention for differentiating instruction and materials goes towards the neediest students, those who struggle to grasp concepts and information that would be deemed on-level or grade-level appropriate. And rightfully so. It is essential that education be accessible to every level of learner. However, a natural oversight occurs when teachers differentiate mostly for the underachieving students; the gifted, above grade-level, overachievers are left with little enrichment.

 

What does classroom enrichment involve?

Enrichment activities in the classroom can take numerous forms and do not necessarily always involve prescribed lessons from the curriculum. Enrichment encourages students to take a more expansive or in-depth look at a concept or topic, perhaps by further research, approaching it with a different lens or perspective, or connecting the subject to a more meaningful or rewarding facet of the real world. Whatever the activity may involve, the notion or goal is typically the same—encourage further exploration, intrinsic curiosity, and lifelong learning.

 

Key components of enrichment

  • Teachers must use appropriate data and assessment information as guidelines to identify important aspects such as reading level, mathematical competency, etc. These data points allow teachers to provide materials that will truly elevate or enhance the learning without introducing a discouraging level of difficulty.
  • Enrichment must be individualized and match a learner’s capabilities. Assessments to gauge Lexile (reading) levels or math grade-level proficiency allow teachers to see exactly how to group students effectively for enrichment activities. Pairing or grouping students based on these data points allows students to have the option to work collaboratively among learners with similar interests and abilities.
  • Enrichment activities should account for student choice. This means that, while each option for enrichment should revolve around a similar learning goal, the method by which students arrive at that objective can be vastly different depending on their interests or selections.
  • Enrichment should connect to prior knowledge and/or account for cross-curricular connections.

Considerations for enrichment

  • If you, as the teacher, had unlimited time to spend on a subject, genre, topic, concept, etc., what would you want students to explore? Use the answer to this question as the springboard for designing enrichment opportunities.
  • What have students asked to read or learn about? Create a running list of topics in which students have expressed interest. Then begin to curate a collection of texts involving these topics so that students can begin to explore their interests if completing additional research.
  • In what way will students be able to work independently when completing an enrichment activity? Conversely, what would they need additional instruction or assistance with as they work?
  • How will you account for grades or evaluation of the enrichment activity? These learning experiences should not be seen as extra credit or bonus work that won’t be assessed. Students need to know how these additional activities will contribute to not only their overall learning, but also their overall grade.
  • Enrichment might involve multiple rubrics or tiered projects/assignments. The idea behind multiple rubrics is that students are evaluated based on their individual capabilities involving the project or task. Similarly, tiered assignments require students to meet the same basic objectives, but incorporate varying levels of difficulty using text complexity, advanced vocabulary, higher order thinking questions, and different levels of analysis.

Enrichment at Home

Enrichment is a typical educational buzzword; however, its utility is not limited to the classroom. Parents can play a major role in their child’s academic enrichment—and it is not as intimidating as it may seem. Enrichment does not have to adhere to a specific curriculum, but rather includes any activity that fosters a learning experience.

 

What are enrichment activities?

Enrichment activities at home can take infinite forms and do not necessarily mirror a typical classroom lesson or activity. Enrichment encourages learners to take a more expansive or in-depth look at a concept or topic, perhaps by further research, approaching it with a different lens or perspective, or connecting the subject to a more meaningful or rewarding facet of the real world. Whatever the activity may involve, the notion or goal is typically the same—encourage further exploration, intrinsic curiosity, and lifelong learning.

 

Considerations for enrichment at home

  • First, enrichment at home or in the classroom should never be reduced to extra practice, bonus worksheets, or additional math problems. The key to worthwhile enrichment activities is that they deepen or expand upon a learner’s understanding—they do not simply bombard the learner with additional assignments.
  • Enrichment at home should at least loosely connect to something that your child is learning or has learned in school. However, the enrichment activity itself can really go in any direction once the connection to prior knowledge has been made. This allows children to access their prior knowledge and build upon that through the enrichment activity. Your child is also able to make real-world connections from these learning experiences outside of the classroom.
  • What does your child like to read or study? Create a running list of topics that your child has expressed interest in and use that list to search for learning opportunities around the community that connect to these topics. Kids can get in on the research as well, which helps them to foster natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation for learning.
  • Consider certain learning opportunities that the whole family can partake in, but be sure that the enrichment activity is age-appropriate. This is not the time to overwhelm young learners with topics or concepts that are too abstract, complex, or mature.
  • Enrichment activities should rely heavily on your child’s choices or interests; this is not an opportunity for parents to persuade or nudge a learner’s interests to match their own.

 

Ideas for enrichment at home

  • If your child has read a book for school of particular interest, explore similar titles or other works by the same author to encourage reading for pleasure. Amazon or Barnes and Noble offer easy online searches to provide full lists of novels that other readers enjoyed based on the title you search.
  • Similarly, if a specific genre has grabbed your child’s attention, use that as a springboard for searching other titles or works that fall into the genre or subgenre.
  • If children are learning about a certain time period, author, musician, artist, or country (which they definitely are in school), do a little research of exhibits, documentaries, book talks, movies, or concerts that connect to their prior knowledge of the time period or subject area.
  • Use student-centered websites to present new material when children are on vacation or summer break. NewsELA, National Geographic, CNN 10, and the History Channel offer wonderful, grade-level organized resources for further exploration of a range of topics. You can also modify the searches to account for a child’s specific reading level to ensure that texts are accessible, yet challenging.
  • Consider enrichment opportunities that do not necessarily tie directly to an academic content area. Mentorships, volunteer opportunities, clubs and organizations provide participants with a plethora of skills. Children can learn about time management, giving back, environmental preservation, friendship, collaboration, perspective-taking, listening skills, etc.

The Value in Real-World Consequences

Many school policies and protocols today are not exactly reflective of the real world environment for which we are trying to prepare students. While these methods are put into place to encourage student success, the flip side of these practices can result in inadvertently fostering a level of helplessness, complacency, dependence, and excuses. How, then, can we ensure that students are well-supported, yet held accountable at the same time? The balancing act can be tedious, but there are some strategies that parents and teachers can utilize to prepare children and teens for the REAL WORLD.

 

Expect and accept failure, but learn from it

It is important that students be reminded of the very real likelihood that they will encounter failure in their adult lives—and probably more than a few times. They must be ready to handle challenges, setbacks, and obstacles in order to learn how to mediate those hurdles. A great student and future contributing member of society, no matter his or her career path, will be able to problem-solve. However, if problems are always solved for them, they will struggle to acquire this skill.

Parents and teachers can:

  • Encourage students to follow up directly with teachers on assignments that did not go so well. If the grade is dreadful, instead of balling the paper up and throwing it away in frustration, provide students with time to conference about that specific essay or exam.
  • Utilize opportunities for error analysis by providing specific feedback and areas of need. This way, students can use failure as a learning opportunity—a moment for growth as opposed to just disappointment.
  • Remind children and teens that the grade is just one measure of their learning; it does not indicate their total level of knowledge or ability. Instead of dwelling on the percentage, use this as a reminder of skills that still need to be practiced or acquired.

 

Get acquainted with “One and Done”

Reassessments, rewrites, resubmissions, etc., are a norm, especially for Montgomery County Public Schools. While the sentiment behind such policies is beneficial—we want students to correct mistakes, participate in reteaching opportunities, and make additional attempts to demonstrate their learning. However, there are several holes in the practice when students a) expect a second opportunity even before submitting the first attempt, and b) receive countless opportunities to increase the grade with little focus on the actual learning.

Parents and teachers can:

  • Set boundaries and limits when it comes to reassessment opportunities. Allow for 1-2 major reassessments per quarter only. Otherwise, excluding extenuating circumstances, hold to the “one and done” policy. With fewer chances to show what they know, students will be motivated to do their best the first time.
  • Help teach students how to prioritize steps and manage time for long-term assignments and final exams.
  • Emphasize chunking and proactive planning to help students tackle complex or lengthy tasks with confidence. Instead of cramming with the expectation that they’ll be able to try again, students will learn how to organize themselves to succeed on the task the first time.
  • It is okay to remind students flat-out: you will rarely get a second opportunity when it comes to college and career scenarios. This is why it is best to always try your best.

 

Hold firmly to due dates and deadlines

Another key aspect of the real world that children and teens may be missing from their classroom experiences is the importance of meeting a deadline. It has gotten to the point that some teachers will accept any work, no matter how late, to ensure that students receive credit for completed or partially completed work. This does not foster punctual planning or accountability.

  • Teachers should try their best to stick to deadlines once they have been set. Of course, if the entire class needs additional time for a task, it is necessary to make adjustments. However, extenuating circumstances aside, students should be ready to submit their work in a timely fashion.
  • Create, explain, and adhere to a late grade policy. This way, students know exactly what the penalties will be if they submit late work. Explain to them that, much like a credit card bill, late submissions are subject to penalties, and American Express is not going to care that your internet was slow if you failed to pay your bill.

 

Clearly explain the 50% rule to both parents and students

MCPS follows the 50% rule for grading, meaning that, once attempted, a student cannot earn anything less than a 50% on an assignment, quiz, essay, test, etc. While this is the county policy, it is not reflective at all of the real world—we simply do not receive credit for a job started or somewhat attempted. We receive credit for a job well done.

  • Explain to parents and students that the 50% rule means a “genuine attempt” at the task or assignment; it does not mean that a child can put their name on a paper and automatically receive half credit.
  • As opposed to accepting an attempted assignment, provide another option for students to earn more credit. Explain to students that they can take the 50 by coming in during lunch for an additional work period. This teaches students that success cannot be achieved without effort and that there will be no “participation trophies” in college or the workplace.

 

Critical Thinking Skills as an Approach to Behaviors at Home

 

Especially as children become stir crazy cooped up inside during the winter months, behaviors can begin to fall out of whack. Perhaps routines have been off, bedtimes have been extended, or one too many holiday desserts has sent someone into a tizzy. Whatever the case may be, we can always appreciate a fresh approach to dealing with misbehaviors. If time-outs, confiscated iPads, or groundings are wearing on the family, a different approach could be beneficial. With a little patience, ok, maybe a lot of patience, conversations where parents prompt children to think critically about their behaviors can change the way in which children see misbehaviors all together.

 

Critical thinking encompasses a complex set of higher order thinking skills. As opposed to memorization or fact-based knowledge, critical thinking includes relational, analytical, reflective, argumentative, or systematic thought processes. It is not so much what you know or think, but why or how you know and think that way. Because critical thinking often involves aspects of perspectives and/or decision making, these strategies can be the perfect platform for dealing with behavior management.

 

When siblings or peers argue:

  • Parents can mediate by asking questions about how an argument began. By taking a moment for reflective thinking, children begin to see how a small issue may have escalated or blown out of proportion.
  • If children are calling one another names, diffuse the situation by talking about how these are opinions; they are not based on facts. Just because someone calls your stupid certainly does not mean that you are stupid. These words hurt, of course, but ask your child why this person’s cruelness affects them; do you value this peer’s hurtful opinion?
  • Encourage siblings to take the other’s perspective for a moment. Ask why she thinks her brother acted that way towards her. Why might his friend have behaved this way? The key is, not so much in finding the exact purpose, but instead taking a moment to consider where that other person could be coming from.
  • Ask about alternative responses for next time. Is there a better option for dealing with a conflict like this in the future? What is the best way to respond to your little brother next time this happens? What are we not going to do again, and why?

When “so-and-so’s parents” let them do A, B, or C:

  • A rational explanation and some critical thinking can go a long way when children are upset over things that other kids are allowed to do. Calmly explain that everyone’s family operates differently, and so-and-so might be able to stay up until 10 pm simply because their parents work late… Or perhaps so-and-so sleeps in and rushes out the door every morning…Or it is possible that so-and-so feels like a walking zombie at the school most days. Whatever the scenario, remind your child that there are reasons behind your household routines—and another family’s routine is frankly irrelevant.
  • Discuss the implications of these decisions. If a friend is allowed to see R-rated movies, but your child is not, explain how an inappropriate movie could make them scared, uncomfortable, worried, restless, sleepless, and ultimately cranky or sluggish at school. Help them connect the dots between the rules and their purposes so that they see these guidelines as meaningful, instead of arbitrary.
  • Ask your child flat-out: “Besides the fact that so-and-so is allowed, do you have a valid reason or justification for changing the rules this time?” This forces children and teens to justify or support their stance with effective reasoning.

When frustrations boil over:

  • Encourage children to take a beat to evaluate the situation—what can we do to potentially solve this problem or ease this frustration? Think about why this particular task is causing so much frustration and use that as a new point of entry.
  • If math homework is about to cause a fit, take a brain break, walk away from the math packet, and cool down. Then, approach the problem with a cool head and fresh viewpoint. Think about it in “grand scheme of things” terms—is this something that is going to keep me up all night or ruin my month? Chances are, this meltdown will be a nonissue in a matter of hours.
  • Help them break down the problem or situation and tackle the parts that they feel confident about. Remind them to apply what they know and then use those methods to chip away at the task.
  • If the task is still complicated, encourage children to write down exactly what it is that they don’t know or are missing—what would they need to solve this problem or complete this assignment?
  • Apply the skill to a simpler problem and use that momentum to approach the more complex problem. Often times, in simplifying a question, we are better able to see aspects of the problem that we may have missed due to the complexity.

When problems are on the cusp or horizon:

  • Call it psychic power or paternal/maternal observations, but parents are often able to tell when an issue, conflict, or temper is about to erupt. Teach children this reflective skill by modeling how to gauge one’s feelings and emotions. This helps to avoid or circumvent conflicts or attitudes that could be problematic.
  • Discuss the concept of foresight and how such anticipation can help in our decision making. Remind children that everything they do has an impact or effect on those around them.
  • In considering these implications, children are able to pause to consider the ripple effect that any decision might have. The ability to contemplate and deliberate based on past experiences and logical reasoning allows children to make more informed choices, and thus behave in more considerate or responsible ways.

Encouraging Reflective Processes in the Classroom

A significant aspect of growth mindset, which we have discussed in earlier blogs, involves reflection through self-assessment and thoughtful consideration. While students might enact reflective practices naturally, and without much conscious effort, the key for growth and understanding is to actively engage in purposeful reflection. So, what can teachers do to encourage this process? Plenty!

 

Most educators have heard of a KWL chart, which asks students to consider what they already know, want to know, and what they will eventually learn about a certain subject or topic. Often times, we utilize the KWL chart as a concept starter, but then we rarely have students revert back to it for reflection after the fact. This is a missed opportunity for reflection because at the center of a KWL chart, the essence, if you will, is the chance for students to reflect on prior knowledge and how that knowledge might connect to other concepts soon to be introduced. In doing this, the KWL chart, which some educators might consider a basic activator, transforms into more of a higher level thinking practice. To utilize it purposefully, teachers should focus much of the attention on the “K” section of the chart; form the opening discussion on what students are able to muster from memory and directed reflection. This way, students are able to garner a more in-depth view of the new concept by tying it to their prior knowledge.

 

Teachers can also spur reflection before beginning a new concept by asking students to consider the purpose of an upcoming task or project before they even get started. By asking students to consider the task and then reflect on similar tasks that they have completed before that might relate, students begin to make additional connections and cross-curricular links. There is also a real-world component at play here. When students know why they are tasked with an assignment, they are able to invest more attention and effort, especially when the objective is tied to a real-world concept or practice.

 

Reflection after the fact, what most of us consider to be linked with growth mindset and self-improvement, is obviously just as beneficial. When we encourage students to reflect, the process should extend beyond the material or content—they should truly be reflecting on the process or experience of learning. That is, ask students which method, activity, homework practice, or organizer was the most beneficial to their overall understanding. Did visuals or hands-on opportunities allow for more of a grasp? If students were to design their own assignment, which options would they prefer to use to reach the final objective? These thoughts and considerations act as subtle feedback to teachers, but also help to prompt students to consider who they are as learners and which strategies work best for them in certain scenarios.

 

Reflection can also happen with peer feedback. This is especially beneficial when assessing a peer’s writing. In seeing how another student approached the essay, planned the research, executed the argument, etc., it triggers an automatic reflective response—students begin to assess their own work against that of their peers. In reviewing a peer’s writing, students are subtly encouraged to think back to their own writing tendencies and how another person interpreted the task somewhat differently. This broadens a student’s understanding of their writing as a whole and allows them to see another’s perspective simultaneously.

Summer Slide, Part II

Incentivizing reading can be a great way to jumpstart young learners’ motivation during the summer. Of course, the larger goal is for children and teens to garner intrinsic motivation for reading and learning down the line, but until that point, parents can encourage the practice with small, consistent incentives.

Here are a few examples to get you started with incentivizing young learners this summer:

  • Set up a tally or sticker chart to track that your child reads something every day. Whatever that “something” might be could vary from child to child. Perhaps it’s the comics in the morning paper, or a cupcake recipe for an upcoming family reunion, or the closed captioning or subtitles of their favorite TV show. Whatever the stipulations may be, holding children accountable for tracking their reading is a good way to begin combatting the summer slide.
  • Camouflage research skills by asking for your child’s help. Depending on age, the research questions can begin very simply, such as, “What is the weather going to look like later tonight during your baseball game?” Or, “What are the showtimes for the movie that you want to see this weekend? Are there better options for showtimes at a different theater nearby?” For older learners, parents can encourage middle and high schoolers to research places to visit, local attractions, events, or summer festivals, or even long-weekend options for a mini-family vacation. Guide their research by providing some critical guiding questions and reputable websites for perusal.
  • Research free educational events, activities, or programs in the area over the summer. In addition to many school-sponsored events and resources, the internet has a plethora of free educational websites that allow students to access digital games, tools, and practices from their living room. School and local library websites are great places to start when combing through reputable online educational resources. Many sites, like Scholastic, Flocabulary, NewsELA, ReadWriteThink, and Edutopia allow students to filter the materials based on interests, grade level, Lexile level, text length, etc. Virtual field trips also provide students with opportunities to see and experience locations that may otherwise be inaccessible.
  • Take learning outdoors to utilize the summer weather and natural surroundings. Simple activities such as planting flowers or herbs, visiting a state park or zoo, or starting a neighborhood initiative is a great way to show children that learning takes place everywhere—not just within the classroom. This also allows learners to take an active role in their learning, instead of the typical passive learning that we often see in schools. For older children and teens, parents can encourage financial competency and budgeting by helping middle and high schoolers begin a neighborhood dog walking, lawn mowing, yard sale, or recycling project. In doing this, children a practicing essential skills and strategies, while gaining a sense of independence and responsibility as well. The cash flow is always a great incentive, too!
  • Encourage literacy skills by providing your child with a photo journal for summer activities and travels. Children might use a smartphone or Polaroid camera to capture important memories or events over the summer. Then they can provide written captions, reflections, and other personal insights to accompany the photos. The photo journal also acts as a great memento for looking back on summer memories.

Summer Slide

For those who are not immersed in the educational realm on a daily basis, the term “summer slide” may conjure up nostalgic memories of sunny afternoons at the pool. For academia, however, summer slide is a dreaded termone that is not associated with a relaxing pool day at all. Instead, summer slide refers to the loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of the summer months when students are not in school.

Statistically, summer slide poses a greater threat to students of lower socioeconomic standing, or those considered “at-risk” and most adversely affected by the achievement gap. While research suggests that summer slide is a larger factor for students who may not have access to educational experiences, materials, and books over the summer, the grim truth is that regardless of a family’s income, any student is susceptible to the loss of knowledge and skills while being out of school for the summer months. With some research indicating that summer slide could mean a loss of 20-30% of information gained over the previous school year, summer slide is valid concern for educators and parents to consider.

Fortunately, there are many ways to combat summer slide. For children and teens, summer reading packets, math booklets, and the like are most often met with groans. Summer is supposed to be a time of freedom from stress; it’s a time for adventure and exploration! So, if parents truly want to sell a child on schoolwork during the summer, they really must package it appropriately.

  • Provide an ample amount of what teachers call “student choice.” Children are much more likely to invest their time and attention in a book or learning activity if it involves an aspect of interest. Additionally, a sense of agency and independence comes with children and teens having a say in what they would like to read or participate in.

  • Parents of reluctant readers will want to provide multiple modes of texts as well. Consider purchasing the audiobook or ebook so that your child can listen while following along. If lengthy chapter books bring dread, expand literature options to graphic novels, magazines, or adapted versions of the classics. Again, the more a young reader has to choose from, the more likely he or she is to land on something pleasurable.

  • Plan for activities that relate to or expand upon parts of the curriculum from that previous school year. Children are always surprised when topics or facts from the classroom suddenly apply in “real life.” Parents can check the school district’s website for curriculum materials or email the child’s teachers to review the major concepts, novels, or skill sets that students were to have mastered that year. Then, with that knowledge, parents can select materials or push children in the direction of texts and activities that incorporate those skills. For example, if parents know that their middle schooler read The Diary of Anne Frank over the winter term, they may want to select from sub-genres involving WWII, Holocaust survival stories, or other autobiographical works that feature a strong, young narrator.

  • Getting the whole family involved in summer learning can help to motivate children and teens as well. Consider starting a weekly family book club, in which each member reads the assigned pages and then participates in an informal chat about their thoughts on the chapter or events so far. The key to keeping the momentum and enthusiasm going is to ensure that the book talk remains as informal as possible. Throw pillows and blankets around the living room, set out snacks or use the night as an excuse to have a pizza party while discussing the book. Since a movie night can be a great incentive for children, think about choosing a book that also has its own film adaptation.

  • Connect the reading material to real life experiences. For instance, if a child is starting middle school next year, provide her with YA book options that feature a preteen navigating through middle school. If soccer camp is on the agenda for the summer, find reading materialsnonfiction, fiction, or biographicalthat center around soccer, soccer players, or the history of the sport. The secret to keeping kids reading is to keep the material fresh and relevant.

How to Break the Negative “Can’t Do” Mindset: High School

The “I can’t” mindset can be detrimental to high school learners. The problem with this negative tunnel vision is that it can easily begin to spill over onto other aspects of a teen’s life. For instance, a high schooler that feels negatively about her ability to do math might transfer that fixed mindset to her ability to learn chemistry, physics, architecture, etc. The negativity creates a destructive snowball effect. High school is a time when students should recognize that the sky’s the limitthey have adulthood and independence right around the corner. A negative mindset can cause teenagers to subconsciously impose restrictions on what they believe they are capable of achieving. To combat this cycle of negative self-perceptions, teachers and parents can implement different exercises, practices, and conversations to encourage a positive outlook for high schoolers looking ahead toward their future.

Show teens that intelligence and ability are not limited to certain tasks, subject areas, or capabilities. Very often, students place much of their self-worth on grades and GPA. And while these are important indicators, they do not accurately measure the whole person’s capabilities. Adults can help by shedding light on “lesser known” examples of intelligent, successful people and instilling a sense of value in different areas of academia, the arts, athletics, etc. Remind high schoolers that school is just one realm for learning and that each person has his or her own strengths. A poetic genius may not be well-versed in math; while a musical prodigy might find history or the sciences more challenging.

When possible, provide high schoolers with options and choices, not only for engaging in the content, but with methods of demonstrating mastery. In providing options, high schoolers become more absorbed with the content they had a hand in choosing. Similarly, when students are given choices in what type of product, project, or demonstration to compose, they are naturally more invested in the outcome. Choices also provide students with a sense of agencya chance to connect their own ideas and decisions to the impact that these decisions will have.

Explicitly discuss the psychological and neurological findings behind growth mindset. There is a reason why growth mindset has been touted as one of the recent educational buzzwordsthere is plenty of research and data to support its claims. High schoolers are at the age to truly grasp their learning tendencies and recognize the plasticity of the brain. Simply put, neural pathways develop and strengthen with repetition and practice. When students understand that they can have a certain amount of control over how much they learn and how well they learn it, school work no longer feels like a task to be undertaken, but more like an opportunity to strengthen their skills and hone new strategies.

Encourage the challenge; discourage busy work or the easy way out. For many students, not just high schoolers, the path of least resistance can often be the most appealing. And that’s understandablewhy cause ourselves more trouble or torment in an effort to reach a goal? The answer lies in the methodology behind growth mindset. The more we challenge ourselves, the greater the opportunity to strengthen the neural pathways. When tasks are mundane, simple, or elementary, our brains do not experience the same level of activity as if they do when a process is complex, unfamiliar, or mentally demanding. Explain to high schoolers that, if your goal is to build muscle, you wouldn’t go to the gym to lift 1.5 lb. weights every day. You would increase the weight, reps, and add variations as your workouts progress. It is the same concept when working out our brains. The easy way out may give high schoolers the correct answer, but it does nothing to stretch their limits or develop higherlevel thinking skills.  

 

How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—Middle School

Here we arewe find ourselves in the middle of spring, with summer just around the corner! As the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities are likely to be the last thing on a middle school student’s mind. As much as preteens and teens would prefer to set aside the school work for a while, the truth is, summer learning opportunities enrich students’ academics and prevent the typical learning gaps that summer can bring. That said, now is the perfect time to begin to look at options for educational summer plans. Whether debating between formal summer school options, camps, or groups, or if you are looking at less structured options for learning, there are a plethora of options for engaging your middle schooler in some summer learning opportunities!

For students entering middle school, the summer after 5th grade can be the perfect opportunity for students to begin accruing their SSL (Student Service Learning) hours toward their 75hour graduation requirement. Volunteer work, even outside of fulfilling the SSL graduation requirement, allows families to investigate certain needs in their community and reach out to those organizations by volunteering their time. The first step when helping your middle schooler decide how to proceed with their SSL hours is to discuss and identify specific community needs and the service options available to meet those needs. For instance, if your teen is particularly interested in “going green” projects, help him or her explore the local organizations devoted to preservation, recycling, or other green initiatives. Beyond working toward a graduation requirement, through service, middle schoolers begin to develop a sense of independence, responsibility, advocacy, self-worth, cooperation, strategizing, and goal-setting. The service opportunities, especially in our area so close to D.C., are truly limitless.

For some outofthebox learning opportunities for your middle schooler, check out Montgomery County Recreation and Parks Summer Guide for 2018. There you will find summer camps for all ages and interests. For children on the younger side of middle school with a culinary interest, options such as Baking Boot Camp, Cook Offs, and Food & Fitness are great programs to get them learning all about their culinary talents. For older middle schoolers with a tech savvy spark, MoCo offers camps for robotics, game development, filmmaking, lego engineering, Youtubing, and a long list of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) camps. For your active middle schooler always on the go, check out the many sports and outdoor camps, which offer everything from kayaking, lacrosse, karate, and flag football, to horseback riding, archaeology, and ultimate frisbee.    

If you are in need of activities that are even more subtle in terms of instruction, below are a few options and ideas that are less structured than camps or courses, but still allow for some learning in disguise.

When planning a vacation or long weekend over the summer, allow your middle schooler to complete a little research of the location. Depending on what they are able to find, perhaps have them plan an activity or select a “hot spot” for the family to check out during the trip. This subtle activity allows middle schoolers to put their research skills to the test for a real-world purpose.

Provide tokens or incentives for middle schoolers to try out new chores or ways of helping around the house. For instance, teach your teen how to mow the lawn and monitor his lawn mowing skills until he’s mastered the routine. Challenge your child to a laundry competition, in which you race to sort or fold laundry. Plan a sibling versus sibling cook-off, with each parent acting as the sous chef or supervisor of the cooking battle. Subtle challenges such as these allow preteens and teens to attempt new skills or tasks without the pressure of outright school work.

Select a series of movies versus books to read and binge watch together during the rainy summer days/nights. Read and watch together as a family, then discuss which version was better and why. Talk about how the characters either did or did not represent what each person had imagined in their head. Were there any glaring differences between the book and the movie?