Creating a Positive Climate for Learning, Part I

Whether we’re talking public schools, private schools, tutoring sessions, or homework at the kitchen table, a positive mindset goes a long way when it comes to the learning environment. Research shows that when teachers and students feel valued, respected, motivated, and engaged, learning increases exponentially—of course it does! As logical as this push for positivity may seem, it does not simply emerge out of nowhere; it must be cultivated by those who wish to bring it to life. There are small, deliberate steps that schools, parents, teachers, and students can take to foster a positive, successful learning environment.

 

At the school level

Creating a safe, engaging, positive learning space is likely the goal of every school. In order to do this, schools must ensure that the individual mission and vision for the school is clearly defined and communicated. Simply put, the vision encompasses the goals for the school and its “ideal” future; the mission involves the day-to-day steps for how the school plans to make that vision a reality. Instead of passively including the vision on official letterhead or posting it to the school’s web pages, school administrators should make a concerted effort to vocalize the goals for their school.

  • The vision should be visible in classrooms, conference rooms, and common areas, like the library or cafeteria.
  • The vision should be phrased in a student-friendly manner, and in a way in which student needs are clearly put at the forefront.
  • Schools should communicate how this vision will come to life and set up expectations for students and staff that foster such an environment.
  • Recognize students who embody the vision or mission statements with awards, celebrations, certificates, etc. The point is to grow an appreciation for the overall goals of the school and highlight when small gains are made by its members.
  • The vision should account for the community as a whole. Perhaps a middle or high school will partner with the neighborhood elementary school for a “buddy-study” program; or maybe the local businesses or organizations want to offer a career day or “shadowing” opportunity. A nearby retirement community may want to perform with the school’s chorus for an intergenerational choir.
  • On a similar note, schools can foster positivity by giving back to the community. A food drive, coat collection, trash clean-up, or anonymous pay-it-forward initiative in the community can build positivity and teach students what it means to contribute to society. Even small gestures, like thank you cards or planting a tree on campus for Earth Day can spur more positive motivation for learning.
  • Appreciation days for support staff, maintenance personnel, security, and cafeteria workers also help to exhibit a learning environment where everyone is valued. Students benefit from learning in a building where everyone’s efforts and contributions are acknowledged and celebrated. Showing admiration and appreciation to the hardworking people that run the building every day helps improve the school climate on both singular and wholistic levels.

On the topic of recognition, schools can foster positivity and an optimistic climate by celebrating student work and achievements throughout the building. Schools should think about using the daily news show or morning announcements to announce birthdays, students of the month, athletic scores and stats, community service achievements, etc. Ask students to exhibit their art work, photography, essays, or poems in display cases throughout the building—this shows young learners that, more than the grade, it’s the effort and growth that builds the foundation of a strong, successful school.

Assess your Child’s Reading Level

A child’s Lexile score (or reading level) can be difficult to decipher without the use of a digital Lexile measuring tool, such as an online assessment or reading-level based program. While these programs are often used in schools and made available to teachers and reading specialists, parents might feel left in the dark when it comes to assessing their own child’s reading level. There are steps that parents can take at home, however, to somewhat narrow in on their child’s reading level—and it’s much easier than one might think!

 

Begin with decoding

Decoding is essentially one’s knowledge of or ability to translate text to speech properly by understanding letters and their relationships to sounds. Letters, combinations of letters, and syllables make specific sounds and follow specific patterns. A child may never have seen a word in print before; however, they can attempt to decode it by using their knowledge of these letter-sound relationships. The “sound it out” method that we adults are likely familiar with from our own educational experiences as kids is essentially the rough practice of decoding.

 

A simple at-home assessment, like the San Diego Quick Check or another equivalent test that gauges reading ability, can help determine at which grade level a child is reading. As its name suggests, the assessment is quick and easy to administer. Children will read a list of words out of context, using only their ability to decode to read them aloud. The number of errors in the list or series indicates the rough instructional reading level.

 

Vocabulary check

After selecting a book that suits the child’s reading level, parents can encourage active reading and listening by implementing the 5-finger method. As a good rule of thumb, no pun intended, the 5-finger method involves reading one page at a time, and asking the child to put a finger down any time that they are held up by an unknown word. If one page of the book contains 5 words that prove too difficult, the book overall is probably too difficult.

 

Another way to assess children’s vocabulary is to ask them to brainstorm synonyms and antonyms, but not in a high-pressure, quiz-like way. As your child reads, ask her if she can think of another way to say the basic words on the page, like happy, shiny, smart, play, run, etc. If she struggles, help her out by naming your own synonyms. This practice helps new readers slowly accumulate new, more specific vocabulary.

 

Comprehension check

To continue checking your child’s reading level, parents will want to hone in on comprehension as well—not just the phonics side of reading. Your child may be pronouncing words and sentences fluently, but reading for understanding is a whole other facet. As you and your child read, pause every few pages to discuss what is going on in the story. Prompt them by asking questions like this:

 

  • Where are the characters?
  • What are they doing there?
  • Have they faced any challenges, problems, issues, or difficulties?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • Who do you think the main character is?

 

 

For older elementary readers, ask them if they can summarize the story at the end, or help them review the most significant parts of the story. Also, if possible, encourage a conversation about theme by asking what the character might have learned throughout the story.

 

Proactive Absences

Absences from school, whether due to illnesses or other circumstances, can disrupt a student’s academic routine. Additionally, as absences accumulate, students often experience stress due to missing work, growing to-do lists, and missed instruction. While some absences are unavoidable, there are strategies that students and families can employ to reduce the negative impact that absences might cause.

 

  • If possible, parents should let the school know about upcoming absences, especially if the absences are going to span over several days. For middle and high schoolers, parents can contact the attendance secretary or their child’s guidance counselor. These points of contact can quickly pass on the information to all of the student’s teachers so that everyone is aware of the upcoming absence.
  • Parents and/or students should let teachers know of absences well in advance when possible. Surgeries, orthodontist appointments, vacations, etc., are often scheduled farther in advance. The sooner teachers are made aware of the upcoming absence, the more likely they will be able to organize work for the days that the student will miss. This allows students to keep up with the work as opposed to playing catch-up upon their return.
  • Utilize online resources, such as Google Classroom, class websites, and school portals. Nowadays, teachers are posting everything from extra handouts, copies of the homework, and PDFs of class texts, to entire lessons and PowerPoints online for students and families to access from home. If students are well and able to complete work from home during an absence, encourage them to use online resources to keep up with the coursework. Remember, specific questions, especially from a student who has missed class recently, are highly encouraged; teachers are thrilled to see students being proactive and accountable for their schoolwork.
  • Especially for lengthier absences or family vacations, students may want to draft a plan for make-up work upon their return. If materials cannot be gathered in advance, ask teachers about setting up work sessions during lunch, or before and after-school tutoring, upon return.
  • For middle and high schoolers, who will likely need to arrange several sessions with multiple teachers across multiple content areas, set a weekly goal for work completion to keep it on track. Make sure that goals are realistic: if a student has been out for a week, it is unlikely that he will be able to complete all missing assignments over one lunch period.
  • Students should avoid putting too much pressure on themselves, as that can foster stress and result in procrastination. However, they also must try to be diligent about the make-up work to avoid digging themselves into a hole if schoolwork begins to pile up to an insurmountable degree.
  • Prioritize the make-up work so that the most critical assignments are accounted for first. For extreme illnesses or surgeries, counselors and administrators may decide to “excuse” students from small tasks, like homework assignments or practices. As long as a student can demonstrate mastery on major assignments, assessments, and tasks, the smaller items may be removed from the workload.

National Stalking Awareness Month

2019 marks the 15th year of recognizing January as National Stalking Awareness Month. The CDC defines stalking as, “a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact, or conduct directed at someone that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.” Many people are probably unaware of the staggering statistic that roughly 1 in 6 women will be a victim of stalking at some point in her lifetime. The purpose of National Stalking Awareness Month is to not only raise awareness, but also promote prevention efforts and provide community supports and assistance to victims.

 

While anyone can become a victim of stalking, teenagers are among the most vulnerable and experience the highest rates of incidents among victims. Below are tips for families concerning precautionary measures, proactive steps, and other safety strategies to prevent children and teens from becoming victims.

 

CLEAN UP SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS

For many teens, social media is their method for connecting and sharing with friends. However, much too often, teens are oversharing in their profiles. Talk to your teen about the importance of certain levels of anonymity online. Details such as phone numbers, addresses, specific school locations, full names, and birth dates when put in the wrong hands can be used to stalk victims. Remind your child that “privacy” settings are not always full-proof. Furthermore, that new “friend” or follower request could be anyone—literally.

  • Do not accept friend requests from people that you do not personally know
  • Do not “check-in” to public places online; this information can be accessed by anyone
  • Do not “tag” specific current locations, especially if you frequent these locations regularly
  • Report any suspicious users and log the attempts this person has made when contacting you
  • Do not respond to any unwanted messages, conversations, requests, etc.
  • If teens have a webcam or camera on their laptop, consider covering it when not in use

 

SWITCH UP YOUR EVERYDAY ROUTINES

Stalkers often rely on victims’ routines to track their whereabouts closely. The less predictable the routine, the more difficult it is to follow. If your teen jogs a specific loop on the weekends, goes to the same coffee shop after school every Wednesday, bike rides through the park to school every day, or walks the dog around the same neighborhood route, encourage her to switch up her day-to-day patterns. A sudden change in one’s habits is sometimes enough to dissuade an unwanted observer. These modifications also prompt teens to try out new places, explore new running paths, or simply catch the bored dog off guard by changing his walking route.

 

DO NOT FEEL PRESSURED TO OBLIGE

Sometimes, in an effort to maintain one’s social courtesy or show politeness, children and teens feel pressured to say “yes” to a kind offer. Parents have probably taught their kids from a young age to hold the door for others, smile and say “hello” when someone greets them, say “please” and “thank you” when someone shows them a kind gesture. Obviously, being well-mannered is not the issue. However, we do need children and teens to be aware of the option to say “no” or walk away to ignore someone’s unwanted attention. Remind them that agreeing to something just out of politeness is not necessary; they should never be made to feel coerced or intimidated when it comes to unwanted attention or “seemingly” kind offers. Remind teens of the following:

  • “Oh come on, give me a smile,” from a stranger in no way obligates you to respond.
  • If someone pesters, coaxes, or berates you for not saying “hello” or calls you rude for ignoring them, keep ignoring them.
  • If someone asks you how you’re doing or where you’re heading, you do not have to respond.
  • If someone offers to walk you home, offers you a ride, or approaches you too closely, move away and remain in a public place until the person has left or until you feel safe.
  • If a peer asks you to hang out or go out on a date, do not feel that you have to agree out of kindness. It’s better to let them know straight out that you are not interested in that way.
  • If a stranger or peer’s attempt at a conversation is crossing the line or making you feel uncomfortable, use your phone as an out. Call a parent or pretend to receive an incoming call from a parent; use headphones as an indication that you do not want to converse with strangers around you.

 

TELL SOMEONE

Parents should explain the signs of stalking and clearly define which types of behaviors are classified as stalking. Tell your teens to speak up to you or another trusted adult if they believe someone is following, watching, harassing, or intimidating them. Remind them not to ignore their instincts—if something feels off, it very well could be.

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.

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 plummet. 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—okay, 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 you stupid certainly does not mean that you are stupid. These words hurt, of course, but ask your children 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 children are 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 non-issue 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. Oftentimes, 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.

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.

Dealing with School Drama at Home, Part II

Encourage honesty with themselves and their peers. Teach your teen the importance of giving and accepting genuine apologies. Remind them what an apology should look like and that it should never happen just for the sake of apologizing or out of obligation. If a friendship is truly over, encourage teens to have an honest conversation with the peer about their feelings, as opposed to just dropping or ignoring the other person. Mutual respect when ending a friendship means providing the other person with an explanation, no matter how uncomfortable that might be at first.

 

Provide an alternate perspective to encourage empathy. The teenage brain does not always allow for seeing the other side of the story. However, parents can help children mediate issues and deal with drama by respectfully playing devil’s advocate. Of course, you want your children to know that you hear their concern and that you support them. However, at the same time, it is imperative that teens begin to see how others may be affected by their words or actions. Parents can provide helpful insight by encouraging teens to think beyond themselves for a second. Consider what that other person might be going through at home. What issues could they be dealing with that your child knows nothing about? Is it possible that this drama began as a misunderstanding or came from some deeper level of hurt at home?

 

Teach them to exhibit maturity by walking away. This means that, when drama arises, teens should feel empowered to simply say, “I do not want to be part of this.” Remind children that, just because one of their friends is having an issue with someone, does not mean that they must automatically join in the drama or choose sides. The “mean girl” ages certainly see this pack mentality more often than male peer groups, but choosing sides can happen in any peer group. On that same topic, remind your child that she should avoid pitting friends against one another as well. Do not try to gain sympathy by spreading the drama or expecting friends to fight your battles.

 

Seek help from school. If your child or teen seems to be experiencing an unusual heaviness, but is hesitant to open up about the issue, parents have a responsibility to seek answers. This might mean phoning or emailing a teacher or counsellor about what he or she is seeing at school, both behaviorally and academically. It is helpful to know in advance which teachers, coaches, or mentors your child prefers, as these are the adults that they are most likely to open up to. Ask about noticeable moodiness, loss of appetite or avoidance of the cafeteria or recess, and any perceived changes in peer groups or social circles.

 

As a last resort, do your due diligence. If children simply are not opening up about the issue, parents should consider checking their child’s search histories, social media profiles, and any other digital platform that could provide insight. Of course, the issue of reasonable privacy and trust will arise, as no teen likes to be “spied on” or “checked up on”; however, parents must always err on the side of caution when something seems off. If your teen becomes upset by your actions, explain to him that your number one priority is always his safety and happiness—therefore, since you had reason to believe that a situation was causing him distress, you did what was necessary to help.

Do not, however, take matters into your own hands. If you find information about drama occurring on social media, do not react, respond, or step in online. Instead, speak with your child about the posts. A parent’s interference online can end up making issues worse. It can also cause a teen to be ostracized and/or further targeted. Instead, if you do find out that your child is dealing with peer drama online, use the information to initiate an honest conversation about what might be happening and how the situation can be handled appropriately.

Dealing with School Drama at Home, Part I

While the middle and high school years are most notably fraught with drama, elementary-aged children are also seeing their fair share of peer disputes and social squabbles. More often than not, drama that occurs during the school day makes its way home with students. Like gum on the bottom of a sneaker, a social issue with a peer tends to latch on and attract more dirt and grime throughout the day, only to become an even bigger issue later on. Since the prevalence of peer issues truly reaches all age groups, it is important that parents have plenty of strategies and tools to utilize when drama rears its ugly head.

 

Avoid fueling the fire or taking on the emotional burden. This is easier said than done because, of course, as a parent, your instinct is to defend and protect by immediately taking your child’s side. However, this instinctual defense mode could simply cause your child’s emotions to become even more dramatic. Instead, use these conversations as an opportunity to diffuse the situation simply by listening. Merely talking about the issue can bring about a level of comfort, so act as the sounding board, not the hype girl.

 

Try not to downplay your child’s feelings with phrases like, “Everyone deals with drama,” or “It’s not that serious.” Your perspective is helpful, but not when it serves to discredit or minimize your child’s feelings. As adults, we can easily forget how these moments in school felt like the end of the world.  Compared to our real world drama we get to experience in adulthood, these quarrels may seem like nothing, but to your child, they are a big deal. Therefore, it is important that they feel heard.

 

You want to be sure that you are not pressuring your child about maintaining or discontinuing a friendship one way or another. It is perfectly helpful for parents to give advice when it comes to friendships, but often times, you may find yourself saying things like, “You two have been friends for years, why let something like this ruin that?” Or, “Our families have known each other since before you were born, you should really try to work this out.” You must allow children to make their own judgement call when it comes to friendship drama; you also want to avoid minimizing their feelings by simply telling them to work it out for your own sake. Furthermore, just because the “close family friends” scenario is convenient, it does not mean that your children are naturally going to get along with your friends’ children.

 

Help them take their mind off of the drama by expanding their circle to include new peers and activities. Ask about neighborhood friends, after-school activities, weekend extracurricular opportunities, and clubs they may want to join. Sometimes a little “friendship break” is all it takes to breathe, regroup, and reset the relationship. In the interim, it is helpful for children and teens to have different options for socializing—casting a wider net ensures that drama can be avoided simply by socializing with other peer groups from time to time.

Lesser Known Facts about Bullying

Bullying and its effects on students are of major concern to parents, educators, counselors, administrators, and even lawmakers. Because of both the prevalence and dire consequences of bullying, communities are taking much-needed strides to overcome this growing problem. While much is known about bullying behaviors, effects, and overall statistics, there are some lesser known details about bullying that are helpful to parents and educators as we work to combat this serious issue.

 

While bullying can and does happen at any grade level, middle schools statistically see the most instances of bullying. There are several theories surrounding this research, including the increased need to fit in and/or follow the crowd, greater likelihood of peer pressure, the onset of puberty and hormones and lack of impulse control. What many middle school teachers are seeing is a combination of these factors, all of which create a pseudo-breeding ground for bullying behaviors.

“Social bullying” is one of the most common types of bullying. This is also sometimes referred to as “relational” or “relationship” bullying. Social bullying involves a group of peers, which can range from a large group, such as an entire classroom of peers, to a small gathering of only a few peers. The key distinction is this type of bullying involves a deliberate “pack mentality.” The bully or bullies will torment their target by means of intentional exclusion, spreading rumors that they know are false or hurtful, plotting to publicly embarrass the target, and manipulating others to turn against and/or join in the harmful behavior. This subcategory of bullying is especially hazardous because it aims to isolate the child, making him or her feel as though they have no one to turn to within their peer group.

 

Some effects of bullying, especially in severe cases, may last into adulthood. These include depression and anxiety, decreased achievement or motivation, and social avoidance or agoraphobia. Research also indicates that children and teens who do the bullying are more likely to suffer consequences of risky behavior later in life, such as alcohol and drug use, vandalism, sexual promiscuity and physical violence.

 

Adults who are not familiar with bullying prevention programs, adolescent behaviors, and school protocols may have a “blind spot” when it comes to instances of bullying. Children and teens often report that bullying has taken place when and where adults are present, but that the adult either did not recognize the behaviors or did not intervene.  Bystanders, especially adults and authority figures, are often looked upon by victims to de-escalate the problem. When adults fail to do this, the victim is often more intimidated and discouraged.

 

While legislation varies from state to state, bullying itself is not illegal. However, in Maryland, cases where bullying includes or results in further harassment, intimidation, hazing, misuse of electronic devices (cyberbullying), or civil rights violations could be in violation of the law. Cyberbullying, although it’s not face-to-face, is not any less harmful to the victim. In actuality, since most cyberbullying occurs via social media platforms, where adult presence is limited, the harm can be even more extensive or relentless.