How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—High School

For most high school students, there is nothing more exciting than the approaching summer months. At this point in the school year, much of the attention is focused on the freedom, leisure, and flexibility that starts as soon as that final school bell rings. Consequently, as the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities are hardly even a consideration for high school students. They are more concerned about having a break from learning and school work. That said, there are ways that parents can promote various essential learning opportunities for high schoolers over the summer.

An obvious item on the to-do list is for high schoolers to explore their college and university preferences. Besides the thousands of books, websites, information sessions, and other resources that students can consult, summer provides high schoolers with the luxury to actually visit the schools that have piqued their interests. Depending on a high schoolers age, financial and academic options, and overall plans for the future, parents will want to encourage a various range of college visits over the summer. Parents should also encourage high schoolers to visit more schools than they anticipate applying for. The more campuses, schools, and programs that students are exposed to, the better prepared they will be when decision time comes. Additionally, high school students will want to visit schools on alternate ends of the “spectrum.” For instance, students should get the feel for a small liberal arts college versus a larger state school, a school within a closer proximity to home versus one that is farther away, schools with a heavy Greek or athletic following versus schools with a more academic focus.

For students nearing graduation, the summer months may be the final opportunity for students to accrue their remaining SSL (Student Service Learning) hours toward their 75hour graduation requirement. At this stage in the game, admissions officers will look for trends in service and community outreach to get a better idea of the student as a whole. Encourage your high school student to think about programs, foundations, or charities that connect to their future career goals or specific strengths. Again, these service hours contribute to the holistic picture that a high school graduate’s application will paint.

Encourage your high schooler to look into part-time summer employment. More than the extra cash that he or she will pocket, the vital lessons that a first job can provide are truly priceless. The résumé, application, and interview process alone can give high schoolers a real taste of what college and career readiness looks like. Additionally, a summer job, no matter how small, prepares students for adulthood by providing practice of major life skills. Time management, listening skills, following instructions, communication skills, and working in a team or collaborative setting are just a few of the things that I learned from my part-time summer jobs in high school. Furthermore, no matter the job, the employment itself shows admissions officers and hiring managers that this person is reliable, can handle responsibility, and can multitask while taking direction. If nothing else, the summer job provides your high schooler with a sense of independence and self-worth—there is nothing like the satisfaction that comes with that first earned paycheck! (A professional reference never hurts either!)

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. II

In part I, we discussed how parents can introduce the concept of self-advocacy with the use of sentence frames, conversation pointers, and self-reflection. Once children begin to understand their needs at home and school, self-advocating becomes much easier.

  • Self-advocacy is all about speaking up; however, listening is also a primary part of getting the information that you need. Therefore, when instructing children on how to voice their needs, parents should be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Whenever children ask a question, voice a concern, or seek a response, they must be prepared to listen and absorb the information that they receive. Parents can discuss how eye contact allows other people to recognize that they have your attention. Additionally, body position and nodding are obvious cues that you are engaged and listening. All of these practices demonstrate active listening skills and help children fully absorb or comprehend the response or information that they are getting. When children ask a question, they should be able to paraphrase the response and formulate a follow-up or clarifying question if necessary. This demonstrates whether or not they were actively listening.

  • As young learners, children are just beginning to understand themselves as students, which means that their learning needs are somewhat unknown to them. Parents can ask questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” and “When do you think that learning is the most difficult?” Answers to these questions will vary and change as children develop skills for managing their academic progress, but the ability to self-reflect is an essential component of self-advocacy.

  • Again, practicing sentence frames and hypothetical scenarios can help put children at ease when it comes time for them to advocate for themselves when their parents are not there to speak for them. Remind children that they can and should ask questions when they are confused about something, especially at school. Parents can also coach children on how to ask direct and specific questions. As opposed to, “Is this good?” or “Is this right?” Children should practice zoning in on concepts that are true roadblocks. In narrowing in on the specific question or need, children will obtain a more specific and helpful response.

  • Parents should encourage children to vocalize their confusion, stress, worries, or desire for help readily. The whole purpose of school is to seek and gain knowledge and experiences that propel them forward. In this sense, the more children ask, the more they will know. Explain to them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For exceptionally shy children, encourage them to speak to the teacher or adult off to the side or one-on-one, instead of in front of the whole class. This will ease them into the concept of self-advocacy by removing the peer attention and anxiety that speaking up in a full classroom may bring.

  • For children with IEP or 504 accommodations, parents should be especially clear with children about requesting their accommodations and supplementary aides. Of course, this comes with practice and familiarity with their own educational plan, however children with specific learning needs benefit greatly from their ability to take an active role in vocalizing these needs.

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. I

Self-advocacy is an essential skill for children to master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. Parents can help children foster this necessary life skill by providing them with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood—and the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For the major part of many children’s lives, parents accommodate a child’s every need. Often times, parents are there to swoop in to the rescue before their children even know that they need something. To begin teaching self-advocacy, parents will want to introduce the concept in small steps by encouraging children to first recognize then vocalize their needs.

Ask your child if he or she knows or recognizes the sensation of hunger or thirst. What does it feel like if you are starting to get hungry or thirsty? Do you hear your grumbling tummy? Do you feel agitated or restless? If you’re hungry, but I haven’t offered you a snack, what can you do to make sure that you get what you need? Similarly, ask your child to describe what it feels like when they are too hot, too cold, or need to go to the bathroom. Do you see goosebumps? Do you start to feel clammy or sweaty? Does your skin pigment, fingertips, lips change color? Does your tummy hurt or feel funny? Do you get jumpy or distracted?

These questions may seem overly simplistic; however, the idea behind such basic conversations is that your child begins to actively recognize what his or her body needs and when. These types of questions are especially important for children with autism because of the tendency to struggle to make observations. Children on the spectrum may find it difficult to sense time or communicate frustration or other emotions. They may also experience an inability to perceive unsafe or harmful situations, which makes it difficult for them to distinguish their wants from their needs. Therefore, when children are aware of their needs, they can begin to vocalize them. This is especially important when children head to school and no longer have a parent to accommodate their every need at the drop of a hat.

Parents can then begin to instruct children on how to appropriately ask for what they need. Practice using sentence frames for different scenarios and discuss the difference between “I want” and “I need.”  Talk about how to distinguish between an emergency or an immediate need and something that can be met or accomplished later or eventually. Discuss instances in which your child should politely say “no thank you” versus vehemently saying “no!” Instruct your child about the appropriate occasions and means of getting someone’s attention, interrupting a conversation, or asking a personal question. By role-playing certain scenarios or conversations, parents can begin to prepare their children with positive communication skills and self-advocacy tools.

Teaching Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

As teachers, we aim for our students to become more autonomous and confident as the year progresses. In addition to the content area that we are instructing and the academic skills they will need moving forward, educators also focus a great deal of instruction on essential life-long learning skills. Self-advocacy is one of these essential skills that students must master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. In addition to parents working to build self-advocacy skills at home, teachers can assist in that development as well by providing students with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood. And the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For some students, especially younger or inherently shy children, asking a teacher for help can be intimidating. Because of this, educators should equip students with multiple methods and strategies to foster self-advocacy and decision-making skills.

  • Teachers may choose to explicitly instruct students about what it means to be your own advocate. Depending on the age and needs of the students, the talking points could vary from classroom to classroom, but the take-away is the same: self-advocacy is all about speaking up for what you need and finding ways to obtain those needs with or without someone’s help.

  • Teachers should also be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Yes, self-advocates are expected to speak up; however, they are also expected to listen to the answer or response that they are seeking. Talk about how eye contact, body position, nodding, etc. are practices to enhance and demonstrate active listening skills. Remind students that, if listening attentively, they should be able to summarize or paraphrase what the other person just said.

  • For students to become strong self-advocates, they must be able to reflect and self-assess. Teachers should prompt students to consider their strengths and weaknesses as learners. The answers to questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” allow students to see themselves as learners in progress. This self-reflection also encourages students to recognize in which scenarios they will need to stretch their self-advocacy muscle by asking for assistance.

  • Students can also learn a great deal about how to advocate for themselves as learners by looking at their likes and dislikes in school. Ask students to not only list their likes and dislikes, but explain why they feel that way about certain activities. A student who admittedly hates reading because he struggles to remember what he read will begin to understand that comprehension, summarizing, and recall are skills that he may need help developing.

  • For students that are exceptionally shy or hesitant to speak up, self-advocacy can be a challenging practice. Encourage these reluctant students by providing alternative options for them to voice their questions, concerns, and comments. With the help of technology, teachers are able to poll students digitally and see their responses in real time. Teachers can also provide students with a question or suggestion box, in which students can convey their needs in writing without getting the whole class involved. Teachers can also help students begin to feel more at ease about speaking up for themselves by creating small group activities, partnered work, academic language frames, sentence starters, and call-and-response practices. These types of activities remove the intimidation factor and allow the more reserved students the opportunity to practice self-advocacy.

504 vs. IEP for Parents

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and 504 Plans, while similar in that they support students’ needs, are also quite different when it comes to how they support students and how they are implemented within the school system. Below is a useful outline to help parents, educators, and children differentiate between the two services.

EXPLANATION 504 IEP
In simple terms, what is each plan? An educational outline designed to help students access their learning in school An educational outline designed to map out a student’s special education experiences throughout their schooling
How does each plan work? For students with disabilities or major health impairments, a 504 provides specific modifications or accommodations so that learning is not impeded or interfered with For students with at least one of the specific learning disabilities listed in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP guarantees specialized modifications, accommodations, and instructional services so that learning obstacles are removed
Who qualifies according to the law? A child with a disability, health condition, or medical need that substantially limits or interferes with a student’s daily life functioning qualifies for a 504 under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act A child with a specific learning disability listed in IDEA, including attention difficulties, is affected to the point that their learning needs cannot be met in the general education system alone. A student qualifies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
How does the evaluation work in schools? Students must be evaluated and diagnosed by a professional, but parents typically must acquire the diagnosis on their own Students must be evaluated and diagnosed with a documented learning disability that affects their success in a general education classroom. Students can be evaluated by the school’s psychologist or request a private, outside evaluation
Who has a hand in the creation of each plan? The guidelines for the 504 are less restrictive; typically the parents, teachers, any special educators who are familiar with the child, administration create the plan Legally, the creation of an IEP is more specific, and usually includes the parents, one or more of the child’s general education teachers, a school psychologist or private specialist at the request of the parents, the child’s special education case manager, and usually the schools special education department head
What are the key aspects of each plan? Again, a 504 plan is the less restrictive of the two; it will typically include a list of accommodations, classroom or instructional modifications, health care instructions or details, and how teachers and other school personnel will implement and track the student’s progress Since the IEP is a signed, legal document, it is more extensive; it will include past and current academic data points, test scores, evaluation findings, and any other cognitive, behavioral, or social test results. Based on these score reports and teacher reports, the IEP team will draft academic, social, and/or behavioral goals for the student to work towards. The plan will also include how the progress will be measured/assessed, which instructional and testing accommodations will be used, and supplementary aides and services that the school will provide with the help of the special education department. Finally, the IEP plan will include details about the frequency of the accommodations and how the student will participate in standardized testing.

Procrastination: Why We Do It and How to Combat It

Procrastination is an all too familiar practice for many of us. While certain people are more likely to put off all tasks until later, we have all experienced the desire to push off occasional duties, errands, chores, or responsibilities. For students, no matter their age or academic aptitude, procrastinating can become an alluring yet problematic habit. Pushing off tasks can become a major pitfall for several different reasons, but there are methods to combat this bad habit—and they begin with awareness.

The problem

Consistently, procrastination creates a snowball effect, in which anxiety or stress further compounds the need for the task avoidance. In basic terms, the more a student puts off a task or assignment, the greater the stress of the impending due date or need for completion. We all know this and can relate to that instinct—we then put it off even further because it has become such a monster that we must avoid it or ignore it at all costs.  

The other issue surrounding procrastination is that we often procrastinate with the tasks or responsibilities that matter most or have the highest stakes. Whether we do this out of fear, denial, indifference, or laziness, the end result is typically the same: we experience a sort of self-destruction by missing an important deadline, or we cave in and begrudgingly and reluctantly complete the task in hurry. Either outcome is less than ideal, especially when grades are involved. Because of procrastination, students dig themselves into a hole, lose motivation, and therefore put forth even less effort with their school work.

The solutions   

Awareness is key to combating the instinct to put off undesirable tasks. Once students realize how they procrastinate, they can begin to alter those behaviors. For example, a student completing research for a paper will find ways to distract himself from the assignment while working. They may check social media, text friends, pause to watch a show, listen to music, or simply scroll through random websites—anything becomes more enticing than the actual research.

Instead:

  • Encourage students to limit distractions by keeping the phone offlimits during work sessions.
  • Complete work in an area away from television, music, friends, and other distractions.
  • Set a timer for 20-30 minutes of solid, uninterrupted work time. Then allow yourself to take a 3-5 minute break, but then get right back to work.
  • Keep light snacks and water at hand while working to stave off hunger and the unnecessary urge to graze to avoid the assignment.
  • Construct a checklist for a multi-step task and prioritize the tasks in order of difficulty. As students work, they should monitor the checklist and stick to the order of steps as necessary. Again, the urge to complete the easiest or most interesting steps is another procrastination tactic—instead, encourage students to tackle the challenging steps first. This will boost motivation and confidence while working.
  • Organize to-do lists with tasks requiring the most time or focus at the top. These are typically the first things that students will avoid completing.
  • Ask students to write down three things that they have accomplished at the end of a work session. The successes, no matter how small, show students that a strong work ethic and focus does help them to chip away at a daunting task that they may have vehemently avoided in the past.  

Discussing Culture at Home

Because cultural diversity is something that all children will be exposed to throughout their schooling, it is important for families to have a handle on the topic as well. Truth be told, an appreciation for diversity and cultural differences begins in the home. Why? Well, children learn from what they see, hear, and experience. Therefore, a parent’s opinion of their own culture or someone else’s is likely to trickle down to the child. Consequently, prejudice or animosity towards another’s culture can also be passed down. Like it or not, children can be predisposed to dislike others based on their beliefs, traditions, or values. This is why it is so important to have conversations about cultural diversity and appreciation early on so that children can have a strong foundation of respect for others.

  • You are your child’s first and best role model. Therefore, it is imperative that you think about how you speak to and about others. Be direct and deliberate about your appreciation for others. Remind your child that beauty is on the inside; it’s not correlated with any particular skin tone, body type, facial structure, etc. If you catch yourself saying something ignorant or insensitive, have an open and honest discussion with your child about how you were wrong in making that remark. Brushing it under the rug or claiming that you were “just kidding” only perpetuates the problem of ignorance. Seeing you correct yourself will demonstrate an important lesson to your child about owning up to and apologizing for one’s own cultural deficits.

  • Utilize the abundant options of children’s books available to introduce different cultures, religions, and lifestyles. Titles such as Where Does God Live?, Over the Moon, Don’t Call Me Special, and The Skin You Live In are great resources to begin conversations around identity, diversity, and respect. Introduce movies, music, and television shows that depict an array of different cultures, traditions, or family units. The more we expose our children to different cultures, the more they will begin to value their diverse classrooms, neighborhoods, and communities.

  • Show your children that learning about how others live can be fun—and tasty! Incorporate a few new menu options to give your child a taste of another culture. Make it a family event and get the kids cooking in the kitchen. Talk about how certain foods or meals are used for specific celebrations in other parts of the world. Then, mark the calendar and prepare to celebrate holidays and events like Cinco de Mayo, the Chinese New Year, Fat Tuesday, or the Special Olympics. You can also help to make connections to other cultures by equating your own traditions with others’ traditions. For instance, if your child is having a sweet 16, discuss how that party might be similar to a bar mitzvah or Quinceañera.  

How to Discuss Current Events: Elementary School

To be quite honest, the news these days can be downright scary. Even for adults, the nightly news and breaking headlines have the potential to shift our entire mood and sense of security. If this is the case for a grown adult, what might a child think about the current events that splash across the screen? As impossible as it may seem, there are strategies that parents can employ to help their families navigate the current climate.

For young elementary schoolers, about age 6 and under, the negative news stories have very little to offer that can benefit young, impressionable minds. For the most part, unless the story is an inspirational piece, perhaps involving people overcoming obstacles, the younger kids should be shielded from the news.

If your child happens to hear, see, or come across the news during your absence, perhaps at school or a friend’s house, be open about answering their questions. Don’t discourage or downplay any concerns they might have by shutting down the conversation or glossing over their worries.

If they have already heard some troubling news, shift the conversation to a more positive route by providing reassurance that your family is not in danger. However, if the news happens to hit close to home, talk about how to stay safe and secure. Provide them with reassuring information about how to handle different emergency situations–severe weather, fire, separation in a public place, etc.

For the young ones, especially, wrap the conversation up by shifting to a happy, cheerful topic. Perhaps you read a silly book together or watch your favorite family show. The point is to move the conversation and potential negative thoughts out and replace them with more pleasant things.

For older elementary schoolers, it is likely that they will be exposed to more information, current events, and political topics. While you cannot shield them from everything, you should be careful to consider their level of maturity and sensitivity when allowing them to watch or search certain news topics. Parents should be especially careful to limit or filter information about news or events that relate to their child’s age group. For example, school violence or teen suicide are topics that hit way too close to home for older elementary schoolers. The more they can relate to the news story, the more traumatic or frightening it can be for children.

Consider setting filters and restrictions on certain channels or websites. Be open with your children about why certain material may be inappropriate. Emphasize that this is not about distrust or a punishment in any way, but an effort to do what is best for them emotionally. Again, respect what questions they may have, but be sure to highlight the good news going on in the world around them.

Be cognizant of your own opinions, as these are likely to become your child’s opinions. The trust and reliance that a child has in their parent’s point of view is undeniable. Children truly do absorb everything around them—including the belief systems that you voice in and out of the home.

Be careful when making statements that lump groups of people together, create a divide among certain groups, or portray others in a negative light. Phrases like “they always…” or “we would never…” are sweeping generalizations that can slowly mold your child’s beliefs about entire groups of people.

By meeting your children where they are, developmentally and emotionally, and keeping the lines of communication open, you can help them navigate the news they hear and come to terms with the world around them.

Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations should help students two-fold. Accommodations should provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, and they should also foster a sense of confidence and boost students’ ability to advocate for themselves. When students feel successful, especially on an assessment, that confidence is magnified and motivates students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. It is likely that students who struggle with a learning disability look unfavorably at their ability to test well. This does not have to be the case. With testing accommodations, students can reach their full potential and truly thrive.

Executive Functions Disorder:

Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. These tools are tailored to each individual student, as there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others. For students with executive function difficulties, testing accommodations can changes testing woes into wins.

Because students with executive functioning disorder struggle specifically with tasks involving higher-level thinking skills, testing accommodations remove unnecessary obstacles so that students can demonstrate an accurate picture of their knowledge. For example, some students may lack confidence when it comes to multiple choice questions. It is not that he/she lacks the knowledge or skills to arrive at the correct answer, it is simply that the ability to eliminate incorrect answers becomes a major distraction.

Provide students with three answer options as opposed to four—this makes the task of elimination less daunting.

Prompt students to physically cross or scratch out the answers that they know are incorrect; reminding them of this test-taking strategy can sometimes be all the help students need.

Allow students to mark or bubble their options right on the test booklet, as opposed to transferring them to a Scantron or bubble sheet. This eliminates the possibility that they will bubble the wrong answer or unintentionally skip questions.

Encourage students to highlight, underline, or mark certain parts of the question or answer options that stand out as crucial to the question. For example, if a question asks “What is not one of the author’s purposes for writing the text?” prompt students to recognize and mark the word not to reinforce the fact that they are looking for a non-answer.

Practice explicit, direct instruction of common testing terms such as analyze, organize, complete, develop, process, etc. These concepts are difficult for all students in the sense that they require abstract thinking. However, for students with executive functioning disorder, these types of cognitive skills are the precise functions that they struggle with specifically. If a test question asks them to “assess the use of the term” consider rewording the question or providing a footnote to explain what you mean by assess.

If students are asked to organize a paragraph in response to a prompt, provide them with a graphic organizer. This small modification helps students to get the ball rolling when constructing their response. They are still tasked with writing the response; however, the intimidation factor is eased by the fact that they have a scaffold form which to work.

Similarly, providing students with sentence frames in addition to a graphic organizer can help ease the stress of a written response. Since executive function disorder is often marked by the inability to or difficulty with organizing thoughts and conveying them in written form, sentence frames provide students with a starting point and allow them to show that they have mastered the concept without the cognitive output interfering.

Teaching Inclusion in the Classroom

General education teachers are tasked with keeping many balls in the air, which is half the fun of working in a classroom—there are so many constantly moving and evolving pieces for which to account. One of these essential pieces to ensure equitable learning for every student is inclusion. Of course, this term is nothing new to educators—we work to create an inclusive environment on a daily basis. What might be new, however, are the many ways in which we teachers can look at inclusive practices. Since every child is different, we must continue our exploration of strategies and practices that best suit the needs of all students.

One best practice that supports inclusion is to vary the output of information. By this we mean that teachers should relay content and instruction in different ways. Some students, especially those with auditory processing difficulties, find that verbal instruction is hard to grasp. To ensure inclusion for these students’ special needs, teachers should try to present information in visual or tactile ways, in addition to the verbal instruction. Depending on the class or lesson, this might take the form of a demonstration, video, or hands-on activity. Some skills or lesson objectives may even lend themselves to a more kinesthetic or tactile approach. Even students without an auditory processing deficiency would find it confusing to listen to a verbal explanation of cursive letter formation. A demonstrated approach to writing using clay, beads, shaving cream, etc., makes more sense.

Similarly, when teachers are introducing concepts like grammatical conventions or figurative language devices, an audio or visual approach might work better than a written explanation of how a properly formatted sentence should sound. Teachers should also practice inclusion by encouraging students to demonstrate their learning in various ways. This means that, not only is the presentation of information different for each child, but the means by which a student exhibits mastery should be individualized, as well. Some students might prefer to write a formal, organized research paper to convey their knowledge of a subject, while others might feel most comfortable presenting a visual demonstration of their topic. The key is to provide multiple opportunities for students to display their knowledge so that everyone’s learning styles are being incorporated.

Another way to look at inclusion is to utilize multiple means of engagement. For students with attention issues, memory difficulties, or other learning disabilities, engagement in the classroom can make all the difference. Engagement might mean listening to music to identify metaphors, similes, or narrative voice. A film study might help students understand a new culture or part of the world. An analysis of a slow motion field goal might help students understand kinetic energy, velocity, or other properties of physics. The point is, when students are engaged, learning not only flourishes, but behaviors and attentiveness increase, as well. Engagement also assists with moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Inclusion, with regard to engagement, means that teachers are not only teaching with methods for each type of learner, but also appealing to each learner, so that memory of the information or skill can solidify. In order to provide engagement, there must be a level of interest on the student’s end. As different as each student’s learning style may be, so may be their interests.

This is where building relationships with students becomes essential for inclusion. Cultural inclusiveness provides students with a platform to express themselves on a more personal level. This also promotes a positive classroom environment, one in which students feel heard, understood, and accepted. Cultural inclusion allows students to see beyond themselves, as well, which fosters perspective-taking.