Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It Takes a Community to Raise a Child

In today’s hectic society, families often need support from the outside. Whether it’s a neighbor who can carpool, a babysitter who can fill in, or a mentor who can provide advice, parenthood is tough and we are lucky if we have other people to lean on.

Sue Ambrose is the type of neighbor who will help anyone with any need, despite having three children of her own, including one with special needs. She is involved in SpEAC (Special Education Advocacy Council,) a parent advisory group whose goal is to work toward the understanding of, respect for and appropriate education of all children with special needs in our community.

While this particular group is an off-board committee of the Moorestown New Jersey Home and School Association, similar groups have sprung up throughout the country to support other families. SPEAC serves as the designated parent advisory group to satisfy the state requirement for parent participation in Special Education.

If you happen to live near Moorestown New Jersey, check out their upcoming event at CafĂ© on Main, called A Gourmet Taste of Hoboken right here in Moorestown! This “fun”-raiser event is open to the whole family on Friday, October 8th at the Moorestown Community House from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

If you live elsewhere, think about ways that you can help other families in your community and take advantage of neighbors eager to help you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Practice Scissor Skills with your Toddlers

One day in our three year old classroom, I saw Marie sitting under one of the activity tables. As I got closer, I was horrified to discover that the little girl was sitting in the middle of a pile of blond girls. She had given herself a haircut. Whenever a parent tells me that she won’t let her child use scissors at home, I recall the story of Marie. Yet, with constant supervision, I urge parents to help their children learn this important skill.

Learning how to grasp and use scissors isn’t easy. It takes lots of practice from the child and lots of patience from the parent. But it is worth the time and effort. It’s a shame that some parents do not allow their toddlers to use scissors at home. Concerns over the child harming himself or cutting something that he shouldn’t be cutting, make parents wary of even introducing their kids to scissors.

We encourage the use of scissors in school for a couple of reasons. For one, this is an important, though difficult skill, for children to master. It takes a great deal of practice for most children to even learn how to grasp a scissor correctly. Cutting is also a skill that they will need by the time they get to kindergarten, and it takes quite a bit of practice. It is also an excellent way to help develop fine motor skills.

We have three types of scissors in the classroom. For children with very weak fine motor skills, we have a pair that actually has four finger holes. The child puts his fingers into the bottom two holes while the teacher puts her fingers into the top two holes. I find them a bit awkward, but for the very beginners, it helps children learn the proper grasp and the motion of opening and closing the scissor. After that, the child can use a pair that has a spring so the scissor can open itself. The student needs to use the proper grasp, but he only needs to squeeze the scissor shut and then it will open back up automatically. Once the child is successful with this pair, he is able to move on to a regular child’s scissor.

In all cases, the scissors have rounded edges and can only cut paper. They can’t cut a child’s skin or fabric. We place a dot with a magic marker at the base of the thumb hole. This dot serves as the scissors’ ‘eye’ and must point up to the sky. That helps the child understand the way the scissor needs to be held. We then help him put his thumb into the top, smaller hole, and two or three fingers into the bottom hole. Next, we practice opening and closing, opening and closing the scissors.

Even before introducing scissors, we encourage the children to rip pieces of paper. Ripping can be a difficult task before fine motor skills are strongly developed. Some children have trouble with the ripping motion. Once they are able to rip with their hands, they have an easier time cutting with scissors.

When the children do graduate to scissors, we start by having them fringe paper as opposed to cutting it. The fringing motion is a quick opening and closing of the scissor without having to navigate moving the scissor fully across the paper. Once they can fringe, we give them straight lines to cut. Finally, they are encouraged to actually cut out shapes.

I am always amazed at how persistent children are when learning how to cut. Very few children can cut instantly. It’s a skill that takes practice. Yet, even children who have trouble cutting are willing to persevere until they find success.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creativity Over Perfection for Children

When our children are little, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that now is the time to teach them to do things the “right” way. We sometimes forget that the way three year olds learn is by experimenting. The more they try new things, the more they learn. Even when they create things that seem wrong to you, it is important to allow them creative expression.

One of our projects each year is a self-image picture. The child looks in a mirror and tells us what color his eyes and hair are, and how many eyes, eyelashes, nose, and mouth he has. We then give him an oval shape to serve as his face, and he creates his image. One mother approached me after viewing the self-image pictures that were hanging in the hall.

“My son put his eye where his mouth should be,” she said. “Why didn’t you fix that?”

I explained to her that the process in making the picture was more important than the finished product. To make his picture, her son, Bobby, had to cut out the circles for the eyes, use scissors to fringe the eyelashes, glue them onto the face and then draw the nose and mouth. He then chose the color yarn that he wanted for his hair and attached that to his head. There were many skills involved in this, including correctly grasping a scissor and cutting, holding a crayon, gluing and coloring. I did ask Bobby to look in the mirror one more time.

“Is that where your eyes are?” I asked him.
“They are today,” he said laughing.

For whatever reason, Bobby was in a silly mood that day. He knew where his eyes belonged, but he felt like putting one eye near his mouth. Maybe we had a budding modern artist on our hands! Because Bobby did all of the cutting, gluing, and coloring, we allowed him to be creative and complete his own interpretation of his face. By that time, he was much more interested in playing with the toy truck.

His mother felt that we should have made him fix it.
She said, “But compared to all the other pictures hanging in the hall, Bobby’s looks stupid.”

“Maybe you have the next Picasso on your hands,” I replied. “What is important in this project is the process of cutting, coloring and gluing. These activities all use fine motor skills and you can see that Bobby did an excellent job. I am sure that he knows where his eyes belong on his face, but if he wants to be creative, we prefer not to discourage him.”

I do remember years earlier when I was the mother in the hallway comparing my children’s artwork to that of their peers. It is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the finished product. Does my child cut as well as the others? Is my son behind the curve?

Yet, the more I have worked with different children, the more I value their individualism and creativity. In preschool, kids are experimenting with different mediums often for the first time. Sometimes, just peeling a sticker off its backing is a difficult task in itself. To observe children using their imaginations in their artwork is a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Families Should Eat Meals Together Whenever Possible

It makes sense that spending more time with your kids should strengthen relationships, and there’s proof that family meals keep kids healthier on many levels. No doubt, finding the time to choose a common hour when everyone can sit at the dinner table can be challenging. Yet, it’s definitely worth the effort.

Children who eat meals with their families have proven to do better in school and are less involved in dangerous behaviors. Research shows that the time spent talking, debating, and even arguing over the dinner table, helps forge stronger relationships. Use this time to get to know your kids. When parents show that they are interested in what their children have to say, the kids are more likely to be more open about their lives.

There are lots of great things that come out of family meals. For starters, parents will learn more about your kids, and they’ll learn more about you. Take this chance to demonstrate that you value other family member’s opinions. Ask your kids what’s happening in their lives, and discover what matters to them, who their friends are, etc. etc.

Studies also prove that parental involvement and influence are important in preventing substance abuse. Teens who rarely have family dinners are three-and-a-half times more likely to have abused prescription drugs or an illegal drug other than marijuana, compared to teens who have frequent family dinners.

Family meals also encourage healthy eating for all family members. When you eat with your children, it is more likely that meals will be more balanced. Research shows that girls who have five or more meals a week with their families are a third less likely to develop unhealthy eating habits, which can range from skipping meals to full-fledged anorexia or abusing diet pills.

We all lead excessively busy lives. Religious classes, sports, classes, jobs, and many other other activities make finding time for family meals difficult. Yet, I encourage you to do your best to try to make this a priority. Each and every member of your family will enjoy the benefits.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Getting the “Right” Teacher

I remember waiting anxiously for the letter to come announcing the teacher my child would have for the upcoming year. So many times, it seemed like I didn’t get the best choice. Now, as a teacher myself, it’s interesting to sit on the other side of the desk, and wonder how many of my students’ parents think that they could have done better.

In truth, most of the times when I was disappointed with my child’s placement, I was proved wrong. Once given a chance, the teacher came through and gave my child an excellent education. It’s so easy to get caught up in rumor and speculation and believe your child MUST have a particular teacher or he will be doomed to failure. Yet, there are many factors that go into creating a cohesive class, and usually your child’s best interests are considered.

For example, would your child be best educated by a teacher who will push her to work harder or is the gentle approach better? Will the other kids in the class form a complementary unit or are there kids who are more disruptive? In the end, it’s part teacher, part students, and part how it all works together that makes a class a success.

Where I teach we take great pains to create the most effective classes, getting input from the child’s previous teacher, the preschool director, and sometimes the parent herself. If we think two students prevent each other from being most successful, we work hard to separate them. If we believe a child is best served in a smaller class, we make sure she is placed there. If there are children who need additional support, we place them in a class with an extra teacher.

In other words, it isn’t the teacher alone who should make you pleased or not when you get your child’s assignment. Give it a chance even if you don’t get your first choice. Maybe, instead, your child got the best choice for her.

And, in the worst case, even a not-so-great teacher is a learning experience for the child. My daughter had a really crummy teacher one year. I believe she made my child more doubtful about her abilities. While I wish she hadn’t experienced that, it did force our family to work harder to instill confidence in our child ourselves. It taught her that sometimes you have to make a bad situation work, which is an important life lesson at any age.

So, when you open your letter, stay positive. Have faith that your child will have a wonderful year.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mommy, Please Get Off Your Cell Phone

It’s hard to believe we didn’t have cell phones when our kids were young. I can’t even remember how I arranged what time to pick them up from school or sports, or what I did to occupy my time while I was waiting. Cell phones today certainly make those things easier. If only parents would limit their talk time to necessities.

I get so frustrated every time I walk into Target or the food store and witness a toddler vying for his mother’s attention as she gabs on the phone. I guess one way to prevent your child from asking for things in every aisle is to completely ignore him. Yet, the time you have with your child during shopping excursions is valuable, and when you talk on the phone instead of to your child, you are wasting precious time.

Stores are a great place for impromptu lessons. Pointing out the numbers of the aisles, showing your child a pomegranate, or teaching him how to be patient through the process are all life lessons. When you form a bond with your child when he’s young, you will have developed the important relationship that you will likely need when he becomes a teenager.

I have witnessed children who beg for their parent’s attention while she’s on the phone. They tug at her sleeve, call her name repeatedly, and even throw something out of the cart. That parent undoubtedly gets angry at the child, who only wanted her attention.

I’ve also witnessed kids who simply give up. They realize that Mommy won’t get off the phone no matter what they do, so they sit in the cart in silence. How very sad.

I beg parents to enjoy quality time with your toddlers whenever you get the chance. As the mother of grown children, I promise that one day you will look back and wish for those moments.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Deciding How Much Time a Toddler Should Spend in Preschool

I received a n e-mail from the father of three kids, who is struggling to choose between sending his three and a half year old daughter to school three days or five. With a six year old going to the same school his daughter will attend, it will be convenient to take both kids every weekday. Having a two year old at home also means that it would be easier to have the two older siblings out of the house each day.

Yet, five days just feels like too much school to this dad, and he wonders if three would be better. Here’s what I told him:

I love that you care so much about doing the “right” thing, but I will tell you right now that whatever decision you make, it will likely be right - and the best part is that nothing is irrevocable in the chance it doesn’t work out. I would equally weigh two factors. First, your daughter’s temperament. If she’s a go-with-the-flow kind of kid, she will likely thrive whether she goes 3 days or 5 days. The second factor is your wife’s well-being. If she is not ready to give up her time with your daughter and she would love to spend those two days with her, that is really important.

On the other hand, if the baby is keeping your wife busy and it will be difficult for her to keep both girls occupied in a really positive way, five days might be a better choice for the family. The fact that your son will be in the same school will make the transition even easier for his sister, knowing that her big brother is in the building if she needs some reassurance.

The bottom line is that you can start out putting her in five days and see how she does. Give it a few weeks though before pulling the plug. If after three weeks she seems irritable or overwhelmed, back her down to 3 days. In my opinion the decision is less about age than the child’s temperament and the family’s needs.

The last thing I will tell you is that while this decision is very important now, and I admire your research in trying to do the right thing, whatever you decide will not affect your daughter in the long term. Kids adapt. The school you choose is more important than the amount of time she spends there.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How to Create a Rewards Chart

Alison, one of my favorite moms (that is mother of one of my students!) was struggling to get her two girls to complete daily tasks without an argument. She and her husband came up with a reward chart that used marbles to earn or lose rewards.

The chart itself uses clip art that is bright, colorful, and whimsical, making the entire process fun for the 5 and 8 year old girls. It allows for the younger girl, who can’t yet read, to be able to understand it.

For example, first line which includes colorful pictures representing the morning routine of waking up, going to the potty, brushing teeth, and getting dressed.For completing those tasks, the girls each get a marble. There are many opportunities throughout the day to earn additional marbles, from washing hands to staying dry all day, to getting themselves ready for school.

Alison explains, “As they got used to it, we started to expect them to do the things with one prompting by us. If they needed us to remind them over again, no marble. Also, there are things they do to earn extra marbles, including any type of good deed that they are doing that wouldn't necessarily be an everyday chore. It definitely encourages them to be helpful to Mommy! For example, they are rewarded for really great behavior if we are somewhere where really great behavior is appreciated.”

Throughout the day, the children can turn their accumulated marbles in for rewards, which Alison has also listed on a chart. These include dessert, an extra book or chapter (depending on the length of the book or chapter,) or 30 minutes of television or computer time. For the child hoping to save money to buy something, any marbles not exchanged can be turned into cash – a quarter a marble. This added money becomes their allowance at the end of the week.

Alison points out that it is fun to give them extra marbles when they earn them, however, the girls lose a marble when sent for time out. The family’s number one sin, lying, loses the whole day’s marbles.

So far, the system has turned their house into a more organized, stress-free environment, while teaching the girls responsibility.