Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Child Just Started Kindergarten and It's NOT Going Well!

You guys were all ready.  New clothes, supplies, snacks, were all set.  He knew all his numbers and letters, and was even starting to read a few words.  This was gonna be awesome.  A picture in front of the house on the first day and she got on the bus or your dropped him off in the first carpool.  All smiles and expectations.

Then you got the first email from the teacher.

She's not behaving.  He's not finishing his work.  She can't sit still during circle time.  His Kindergarten screening found some possible learning issues.  You aren't sure whom this teacher is writing about, because it's not YOUR kid!  There were no problems in preschool, you know she's smart, she's never hit another child before!  Why does he cry everyday when I drop him off?

First of all, I'm sorry things are not going well.  Like the bride caught outdoors in a cloudburst during the vows, this is a major event that has not lived up to expectations.  It stinks.  If this is your first child, it stinks even worse because this is probably the first time expectation has not matched reality.  Been there, done that.  So did my parents.  So has just about every parent on the planet.  It's not easy, but you will survive.

The issue at hand is trying to figure out what is going on, and taking steps to improve the situation.  Those steps may need to be taken at home, or at school.  Most likely they will need to be taken both places.  Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1.  "What previous experience has my child had with a large group of children?"
  How big were the preschool classes?  Did she even go to preschool?  Classrooms with upwards of 20+ children can be noisy places with a lot of activity that may be confusing.  That might be part of the issue.

2.  "How are the expectations for behavior at school the same or different from those at home?"
  Does school expect your child to be more self-controlled without several reminders? Does the school have higher expectations for things like sitting still and being kind to others?  If so, and you want your child to meet those expectations at school, you will need to change them at home to match.  Are the expectations lower?  That can cause confusion.  In that case you may need to explain why standards are higher at home.

3.  "How much emphasis have I placed on my child excelling?" 
Be honest with yourself.  Are your expectations for behavior or academic achievement too high for your child right now?  Are they too high for any five-year-old?  No matter what you say to your child, they know what your expectations are.  They also know when they aren't meeting them.  Sadly, it's not unusual for a young child who is struggling to tell me that they aren't "doing good."  They will not be able to tell me what that means, but they know they have a problem.

4.  "Is my child ready for Kindergarten?"
  Some five-year-old aren't, either academically or socially.  This link can help answer that question:  Like every other aspect of school, Kindergarten has changed dramatically in the last few decades.  Teachers expect children to come in the first day ready to learn.  School can be stressful for a child who is not ready, and their school career begins on a negative note.  It is OK to give them the gift of an extra year.

So now you have answered all of those questions, and there still doesn't seem to be any reason why your child is having difficulty.  Here is what you should now ask of the school:
  • If your child is having behavior issues you should request a meeting with the teacher and the principal as soon as possible.  At that meeting you should request an observation, and ask what will happen long term.  You should also request that the school provides some sort of brief daily behavior report via paper, text or email. That way you are hearing about good days and minor issues as well as serious ones.  Your school counselor should meet with your child to see if they can help. The counselor can also see if you need some extra professional help outside of school.
  • If your child seems anxious, you should ask to meet with the teacher to see if they have suggestions. They might have observed situations that seem to trigger the anxiety. When separation is an issue, the teacher might have suggestions on how to improve the transition. If the anxiety doesn't not start to ease off after the first few weeks of school, or seems to get worse, you should also consult the school counselor.
  • If your child is having trouble managing the academic material, your first step is to request a meeting with the teacher.  Even a child who can write numbers and words at home may still have a learning issue that a parent cannot see.  Most schools do some sort of screening for incoming Kindergarten students.  You should let the teacher know in advance that you would like to review that screening along with seeing examples of you child's work.  If the data provided seems to indicate that your child is having difficulty, you should ask if the school has a student support team or student assistance team.  This process usually provides a child with research-based strategies to improve learning.
    Often children are having difficulty in more than one of these areas.  For example, anxiety can contribute to poor academic performance.  Likewise, a child who feels frustrated with academics can act out.  It's important to make sure that your meetings with school personnel take all issues and factors into account.  School personnel need to collect the correct data in all areas. That data must present the most complete picture of what is happening with the child.

Now that we have spoken about what you should request from the school, here are some things that you need to do:

1. Take a breath.  I will guarantee you that your child is not the only one in a group of 25 that is having difficulty.  This bump in the road, as much as it stinks, does not mean you are a bad parent.  It does mean you have to adjust your expectations for this school year.  With your consistent effort, things will get better.

2.  Do not refer to the child as "bad".  The behavior is inappropriate, not the child.  Children who see themselves as "bad" have a very hard time finding incentive or the possibility to change.  Please do not do this.  Period.

3.  Listen to your child, then check with the teacher or principal.   Five-year-olds love attention.  They figure out pretty quickly how to tell a story that will give them just that - whether it's telling Mom that they are bullied, or telling the teacher that they didn't eat breakfast. (And they tell us all sorts of interesting things........)  Sometimes they are not lying deliberately.  They have a fuzzy idea of the difference between fantasy and reality.  They also have a fuzzy idea of time. They can combine something that happened in the morning with something that happened in the afternoon into one event.  This to say that as a parent you have to trust, but verify.  BTW, even if they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they still have a fuzzy sense of reality and time.  It's kind-of like even though they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they are still only 3 feet tall.  So please do not mistake advanced speech for advanced development.  They are two different things.

4.  Reward positive behavior.
  Yep, deliberately kicking a classmate should have a negative consequence at home.  Those of us at school actually count on that.  I don't care whether the child was provoked or not.  On the other hand, disrupting circle time maybe doesn't have a consequence, but sitting still has a reward.  "You did your job well today, so you get to take a walk with Mom or Dad" or extra LEGO time, etc.  Research has demonstrated time and time again that rewarding positive behavior has more of an effect than punishing negative behavior.  This tends to be true when the negative behavior is not too serious.  Behaviors best managed through positive reinforcement include disrupting or distracting others, not obeying certain rules, or not finishing schoolwork.

So Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa), with your consistent help, things will gradually get better.  Please do not wait for the situation to go away with time.  It might, but an attitude toward school, one that is not positive, may be forged in the meantime.  I have a friend who still remembers being sent home from Kindergarten on the first day because he fell off the jungle gym.  That's probably not exactly what happened, but the memory is "I screwed up on the first day of school and had to come back the next year."  His folks probably felt the same way, which is why they never said anything to him about it.  This memory is now 45 years old.  Partner with your school and make some positive things happen.  Email/msg/tweet me if you need help.  FB - Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC, Twitter @pam327.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Stress and the Classroom Teacher

For about a year now I have been searching for research studies on teacher stress in American public schools.  I haven’t found any.  There have been some done in the UK, but I haven’t found any here.  I started looking because I want to give my colleagues some research-based ideas about why they might be stressed and how to cope.  No luck.  Looks like I have to just take a crack at it myself.

I think that the stressors teachers face is obvious to them, but not to the general public.  You have to experience being responsible for educating a group of children in a school to understand.  Substituting or volunteering will give you an idea. But truly understanding the load of stress comes from actually having to take responsibility for the classroom and what happens there.

As a teacher, it is your job to take a group of children from wherever you get them to point “X”.  That has to happen within ten months.   At this point I can go into the 25 reasons why this is at least a difficult task.  But we’ve heard them all before - low pay, the devastation poverty creates for children trying to learn, to the lack of resources, etc., etc.

I want to talk about some possible solutions for combating the unique combination of stressors on teachers.  These are just ideas from my own personal experience and observation – I would love to hear any others that people might have.

1.     Remember that your job is really, really, important……..
  I think teaching is as important and complicated as practicing some types of medicine.  You may not be saving a life, but you are definitely creating future doctors.  If you ask anyone to name four formative experiences from childhood, I'll bet at least two of them involve school.  You are instrumental in developing capable humans. Treat yourself as a professional with a brain.  Read new things.  Try new ideas.  Become active in the larger education community and your professional organizations.  You are a professional and you need to act like it.

2.    ………….but also remember that young humans are not created in a single school year.
  No matter how many standards are set by legislatures and departments of education, children are never all going to progress at the same rate in a given year.  It simply doesn’t happen.  One or two children in your class may not learn all of their multiplication facts this year.  And it’s OK.  Because if you are there in the moment with what they are ready to do instead, you will have provided what they need.  Which is success and confidence.  The rest will come along too.

3.     Leave some slush in the schedule.  A few years ago I worked for a Principal who used to tell faculty not to stress if they didn’t get to end of the textbook by June.  She advised instead to go as far as the children and the teacher were able with consistent effort.  If you have every day tightly planned, you are setting yourself up for a lot of stress.  If this is your first year teaching, you will get sick.  Probably in the spring.  If you have young children, they will get sick too.  Other stuff happens.  Stuff outside of school that you have to deal with.  Allow yourself and the children some days of review or autopilot. Then when the unexpected happens you are not spending the next three weeks frantically trying to catch up.  You will most likely end up in just about the same place at the end of the year anyway, with a lot less stress on you and the children.

4.     Let the children help you. 
I work in a Montessori school.  A central tenet to Montessori pedagogy is that children should be in control of their work within a carefully prepared and structured environment.  Children in the Montessori classroom engage in more activities than just academics.  They also take part in keeping the classroom organized and clean.  They help each other with school work and chores, and they take part in developing rules and routines.  It’s remarkable what children are capable of if the proper conditions are met.  Maybe that child is advanced in math and is somewhat bored.  She might like to spend some time helping another student who is struggling.  (Hopefully you are letting them find a way to do math at their level, too.)  Is that teacher closet a total mess?  Older elementary school students would love to spend time reorganizing it.  They might even stay after school to do it if it means extra time with you.  Look around your classroom at things that you would like to do.  How can the children help?  This is not about free labor.  It’s about freeing you up to do more of what is most pressing, while teaching children how to build a classroom community.

5.    Understand the real reason that parent might be acting like a total jerk.  Oh, I know that email was ugly and upsetting.  The child is having a lot of trouble right now, and the parent is making it clear that it’s all your fault.  Except that might not be the case.  If you have done your best, owned up if you messed up, this may no longer be about you.  Parents have a lot of guilt when their children have problems in school.  (BTW – It might not be their fault either.  Sometimes children just need to work through a difficult time with help from several different adults.)  Guilt can make parents crazy.  So don’t take it personally and/or assume you are a rotten teacher.  It may just be “guilt overflow.”

6.    Stay away from negative colleagues.  I don’t care what school I’ve been in, according to at least one faculty member at each place it was going to hell in a hand basket.  Like I don’t have time for that anymore.  The job is difficult enough as it is.  Every school has problems.  No Principal is perfect.  Look for people in your school who are problem solvers and hang with them.  They will still complain, but if they are trying to improve things, their positive attitude will rub off on you.  Believe me, you will feel less tired and defeated.

7.    Walk out of the classroom when you can.  Alone.  Without the entire class in tow.  (Hopefully they allow you to do this in your school.) I’m not talking about every 30 minutes, but if they leave for a special or you can grab someone to stand in the door for a few.  How many of us spend virtually the entire day in the classroom?  Even at lunch time?  It’s not healthy.  Go to the bathroom and freshen up if you feel like it.  Get coffee.  Stare out the window for a minute.  Take a walk outside, or visit the library.  Look at the latest projects outside of the art room.  You get the idea.  I doubt anything disastrous will happen while you are gone.

8.    Remember your oxygen mask.  When you fly, the stewardess always tells you to put your own mask on before assisting a child.  This is a good metaphor.  If you pass out from your own lack of oxygen, you cannot possibly help the child.  Likewise, if you “pass out” because of stress at work, you can’t be an effective teacher.  So take time for yourself.  Try the things here and other stress relieving things as well.  Take a day when you need it.  Find someone you trust to talk to if you need to.

You are definitely worth it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How to Get to School On Time

For those who are now grumbling at me after the last post, here is a follow-up.  Remember that I am a chronically late person, and I live with three other people who have some form of ADHD.  We are all recovering “late-a-holics”.  Here are some things that I have used to get places on time – particularly in the morning before school.  Hopefully they will help you.

1.    Find a reason for being on time.  If not being late is not important to you, nothing below will make a difference.  People have different reasons for wanting to be certain places on time.  When my children were in high school and had to drive 40 minutes one way, getting up and out the door with plenty of commute time was a trade-off to Saturday School.  Maybe you just want your child to have time to transition in the morning.   Maybe you want them to learn that being on time is important.  Whatever the reason, you need to find it so that you will want to be prompt.
2.    Look at what you are doing right before you leave.  This is especially important in the mornings.  Can anything on the “to do” list be done the night before?  How about on Sunday?  I know one family that puts lunch components in plastic bags and containers on Sunday for the entire week.  Then they pull the lunch together the night before.  How about showers at night instead of in the morning?  I even know some families that give baths and put the younger children to sleep in the shirt they will wear to school the next day.  Can anything be eliminated?  Can the garbage go out in the afternoon instead of in the morning? 
3.    Resist the urge to get sidetracked.  Your routine should be your routine.  In other words, don’t load the dishwasher or clean the cat box one morning if it’s not something you normally do, or try a new hairdo that takes extra time.
4.    Have a bathroom schedule.  Not only does this streamline everyone’s routine, but it will also cut down on those folks who like to spend 25 minutes in the shower.  If you need to, put a timer in the bathroom and set it. 
5.    Cut down on electronic distractions.  No TV, phones, iPads, or other electronics before leaving.  Period.  This includes the grown-ups.  If your job means early morning email, it should be finished before your children wake up so that they have your full attention. 
6.    Speaking of being ready before the kids………This will probably be the least favorite suggestion, but do you get up before the kids?  How about getting up early enough so that you are dressed, fed, and ready to go out the door?  You can then spend your time getting everyone else ready.  If you are not distracted with your own activities, it’s harder for the little people to wander instead of putting on shoes, etc.
7.    Skip the drive-thru.   It’s actually not a guaranteed time saver.  You know that rule that says when you are cutting your time close, the guy in front of you will have four separate orders or the credit card machine will not be working.  While you are putting together lunches on Sunday, put together grab and go breakfasts as well.  They will probably be cheaper and have less fat.
8.    Allow for traffic.  Assume there will be an accident.  Better to arrive 20 minutes early than 10 minutes late.  A lot of smart phones will now estimate the time it takes to get to where you are going quite accurately at any given time.  If you have that feature, you can check on things 15 minutes before you would normally leave and possibly get out the door a few minutes sooner.

If you have other ways that you get places (especially to school) on time, I would love to hear about them.  Different things work for different people.  Feel free to comment below.  Find me on FB at Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC or on Twitter @Pam327.

Why getting to school on time is really important.

This morning I spent some time in a classroom while their teacher was finishing a meeting.  The majority of children were there right on time and ready to begin.  The teacher assistant greeted the children at the door and gave them a warm-up work to do until it was time for morning meeting.  It was a 5-10 minute activity.

Three children arrived late and did not have time to start the activity before being called to the rug.  One child was visibly anxious about this and came to me saying, “I haven’t started tracing my numbers yet!”  I assured her that it would be all right and that she would have time to finish the activity later. But as she watched the other children putting their work in the completion basket, the look on her face told me she remained unconvinced.  I wondered how well the child was able to hear what the adult was saying in morning meeting. She did not raise her hand at all.  I wondered if she was still thinking about that worksheet. 

We all know how hard it is to “catchup” during the day when we start behind.  I hope the rest of her day is better.

Until I spent time in classrooms early in the morning, I did not appreciate how late arrival can mess up a child’s day. It can also mess up the classroom.  This particular morning there were no children that came in and interrupted morning meeting, but I know that often happens in other rooms.  Coming in late puts the “late arrivee” on the spot for anything they might have missed.  Moreover, everyone's attention diverts to the person putting up their water bottle, lunch, etc.  Children are missing what the teacher is saying.  And what she is saying first thing in the morning is pretty important.  If it’s just one child, the teacher can check in with the group and make sure everyone got everything.  But if it happens four times over 10-15 minutes, it becomes difficult to regroup.  Everyone ends up getting pretty frustrated.

I’m not talking to the parent that is late to school once a quarter.  I’m talking to the folks that are late more than once a week.  Now before you get all irritated with me,  I will tell you that I used to be chronically late.  I misjudge the time and try to stuff too much activity into the period right before I have to leave to go places.  The only reason my kids were at school on time was because I worked in the front office and had to be in the building early in the day.  Most important, I didn’t think it was a big deal to be 15-20 minutes late all the time.  Finally, a good friend of mine left me behind one day when I didn't meet her to carpool because I was 15 minutes late yet again.  She was fed-up.  The day after that, another good friend and psychologist told me that chronic lateness is just passive aggressive behavior towards the person you are holding up.  I guess that’s why it feels so rude.

I can’t tell you that I was never late after that, but I decided that being on time was going to be important.  I just realized I wanted to give people more respect, and I wanted to stop arriving at places feeling rushed and scattered. 

Isn’t that something you want to teach your child?