Thanks for asking your education-related questions. Next Tuesday's Q&A topic is peer pressure, social anxiety and making friends at school. If you have any comments or suggestions for future Q&A forums, please e-mail education editor Kristin Rushowy at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week's topic was adjusting to back to school.
Professor Janette Pelletier of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto is taking your questions on back-to-school issues. A former elementary teacher and school psychologist, her areas of expertise also include school readiness for diverse families, parental involvement in education, transition to school and family literacy.
Q: This is in regards to a story published a couple of weeks ago regarding the increase in high school dropout rates across Ontario. The government noted a direct correlation between the Grade 9 mathematics curriculum and the rising dropout rates. My question is whether this is the problem? Or whether the elimination of OAC has pushed higher math down to elementary schools and the children are not being well prepared for high school? As a former student in the Ontario public school system, I know there are excellent teachers in elementary schools however, many of them have not done more than Grade 10 math or science and are expected to teach it and stress its importance in everyday life after not having done math in 10 years. I am curious to know how much mathematics and science training the teachers are recieving in teacher's college? I once taught in a learning centre and noticed a trend in most of the children having difficulties in both math and science, they were not able to multiply, add, subtract or divide quickly or efficiently and relied on calculators. Is the new curriculum touching on too many subjects and not stressing enough of the basics? Thanks in advance.
A: Although my own research and teaching is not in the area of mathematics, I can say that in recent years there has been a push at faculties of education to foster deeper understanding of mathematics and science among new teachers. At the secondary level, teacher candidates must have two teaching subject areas, so mathematics teachers would have training specific to teaching math. At the elementary level, teachers develop expertise in teaching pedagogy that is cross-curricular so that children's programs are holistic and integrated (for example, literacy skills can be developed through science exploration). Teacher candidates at the elementary level do also receive specific courses in teaching mathematics and science/technology. I believe this more recent push in math and science education will begin to show increased learning in students in time.
Q: Our granddaughter has just been enrolled in half-day pre-kindergarten school. Is it too early to become anxious about peer pressure?
A: Hopefully you won't need to become anxious about peer pressure at any time. However, it is understandable that parents and grandparents are concerned about their little ones beginning school, especially if it is the first out-of-home group experience the child has had. If your granddaughter has participated in some other form of preschool program such as nursery school, child care, gymboree, caregiver-child and library classes, then she will have a sense already of what it is like to be a part of a group of children her age. In that sense, these group activities are helpful for young children in making the transition to pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. Research has shown that peer relations and play are the most important aspects of kindergarten for young children - both positive and negative. The negative aspects of peer relations that children report are feeling rejected or hurt by their peers. However, "peer pressure" in the sense of peers exerting pressure on a pre-kindergarten child to engage in inappropriate behaviour is unlikely at this age. At this age, young children are more likely to "imitate" another whom they perceive to be powerful or who has been rewarded for a particular behaviour. You can ask your granddaughter to "tell you about school" so that she knows you are there to provide that secure base and so that you can understand how she is feeling about starting pre-kindergarten.
Q: I can't decide what kind of pre-school program to put my son in. He is 3 and very bright and I just don't think the things I do with him at home are stimulating enough. (I am a stay-at-home mom). Do you have any recommendations about what kind of programs works for pre-schoolers and how often he should go?
A: It sounds as though your son might enjoy an organized or semi-organized playgroup, sport or preschool and you would have an opportunity to meet other parents who are asking the same questions. You would also meet professionals who have experience planning and providing stimulating programs for young children and could give you ideas and resources about how to engage him at home.
I would suggest tapping into his interests and seeking out a program that would be motivating. For example, he may be interested in a movement program, music program, moms & tots drop-in, family literacy, nursery school or other program in the community or school. Three half days a week is plenty of time for this kind of program or combination of programs, especially since you have the benefit of staying home with him otherwise. There are places where you can get more information about these kinds of programs - such as the Ontario Early Years Centres, school boards, municipal departments of children's services, and community centres. Some programs are free for parents and children while other formal preschool programs may involve a fee.
Q: I would like some suggestions on how to handle the pressure of homework for children in Grade one. I really don't believe my son is ready for reading yet but there is a pressure passed down to us as parents to keep our children "on track" with the curriculum without regard for the child's individual abilities and readiness. I want to instill a love of reading not pressure my 6-year-old.
A: I am not sure whether your child is already being asked to complete reading homework in Grade 1. This seems premature given that most Grade 1 children at this time of the year are not yet reading, but rather are being read to at school and are being supported as they begin to look at books on their own. Many children still need to develop the oral language skills that underpin literacy development. However, informal literacy activities that parents can do at home with their child on an incidental basis, can provide enormous support to the child and can help little ones to become motivated to attend to print in their environments. Thus completing reading readiness worksheets would be inappropriate. However, reading books together and playing literacy games as part of regular family life would be beneficial (for example "I spy"). Thus the answer depends on what type of "reading homework" your child is being asked to do at the beginning of Grade 1.
I believe most Grade 1 teachers would welcome this incidental kind of support at home and would not wish for you and your child to complete formal reading homework per se. Some ways for you to instill a love of reading are to read with him every day and to make reading an enjoyable activity that he can count on. Talk about books and let your child have some choice about the books you read together.
Q: My son is is very unmotivated. He's been that way since elementary school but now that he's in high school (grade 11) he's really falling behind. He doesn't fail classes but does the bare minimum so his grades are ok. I wish he would try harder. His friends all do well in school, better than him, so I don't know what the problem is. I think he's going to regret it when they all go off to university and he's stuck here. Thank you.
A: Perhaps your son would benefit from a high school program that allows him to apply knowledge in a more practical way. Perhaps he does not see the point of learning formal curriculum material to prepare him for university, but rather might see the benefit of a more applied program that makes sense in relation to what he wants to do in his future. From what you have written, it seems as though he has little interest in the material, yet obviously is bright enough to make satisfactory grades despite not working very hard at it. Sometimes children get off to a slow start and are unable to be drawn off that path. This can happen for many reasons, but one may be related to expectations that children have of themselves and that others have of them. Low expectations are often maintained over time so that high achievers are rewarded and seem to accelerate faster while low achievers can be labelled as such and may live down to expectations. Without knowing your family's situation, I might suggest some guidance counselling for your son. Perhaps a new path to success could begin if his program fit his interests and made sense to him in terms of his goals. Good luck.
Q: We have twin boys in Grade 3 who have been in the same class up until now, they are now in separate classes in school. They are missing each other and already asking to be in the same class. However we have moved and the principal we now have believes twins should not be together so I guess that won't happen. What can we do to make this easier for them?
A: It seems as though your boys have grown to depend on each other for emotional security in school and now that they are separated, are having to negotiate a new and uncomfortable transition. This discomfort of being separated is likely heightened because your family has just moved. Most child development experts agree that it is important for twins and other multiples to form their individual identities and this is more difficult to do when they are in the same class. One reason is that teachers may inadvertently "unitize" them or may mistake one for the other. Even if they are not identical, it is more likely that their names would be mixed up than if they were in separate classes. Twins, particularly identical twins, can "elicit" similar responses from others around them, thus making their environments even more similar and less differentiated. If twins are in different classes, their teachers and their peers will get to know them as individuals and this will help in the boys' individual identity formation. To make it easier for them, it may be possible to arrange for time together at lunch, recess, in after-school activities and possibly in activities shared between the Grade 3 classes. It is also important to give the boys individual time at home, so that they do not feel that being together is the only way to be. They can practice being apart at home as well through different extra-curricular activities such as sports and music and different (as well as shared) friends.
Q: My 3-year-old daughter has just started Montessori, and the first week was very happy to be there. Now all of a sudden she doesn't want to go to school. She doesn't put up a huge fuss, but every morning says she'd rather stay home. I'm sure she's still adjusting but why would she be fine one week and not the next? Is this something I should ignore for now? She's only there part-time.
A: It is terrific that your three-year-old does not put up a fuss as she begins school in this new environment. Perhaps the shifting effect of being happy then reticent about school is related to the growing realization that this has become a permanent situation rather than a visit or a little holiday. That is, she is starting to recognize that there is a pattern of going to school and that she has left the consistency of the familiar environment she was in before. It would be reasonable for you to speak to the teacher about your daughter's transition issues so that the teacher can put strategies in place to ease that transition. This could involve a "buddy" system of children, or having the parent join the class for a few minutes so the child can "show off" her classroom environment, a book that is read about starting school in a new place or other solutions that the teacher has successfully employed with previous classes. The teacher might suggest things for you to say to your child as you are getting ready to go to school, such as providing reassurance that your daughter's world hasn't changed other than beginning at this new school. The parent-school connection is so important to helping children make that transition. The more the child senses the continuity and shared understanding, the easier the transition.
Q: Since it is time again for routine, I had a question about sleeping. Our two children are 6 and 8, and I am wondering how many hours of sleep do they require per night? We are trying to re-establish their sleeping patterns, and we want to make sure they are getting enough rest.
A: It is best if you ask your pediatrician about the recommended number of hours that your children sleep since sleep needs vary. Generally speaking, elementary school-age children require about 10-hours of sleep a night. A routine is important to help establish good sleeping habits, for example, regular bed time, having a bath, brushing teeth, having a story and being in a quiet room without TV. These routines may help children to relax and to avoid being over-stimulated, for example, by certain types of TV programming or computer games. One should also consider whether children are consuming caffeine during the day (for example, colas) as this can have an impact on sleeping.
Q: We get very little notification about upcomming school events. An example would be Professional Development Day for teachers (Sept 19) yesterday notification to parents sent home on Thursday (Sept 15). How do I find out about up comming events at school without hasseling the school office. I have since downloaded the school calendar from the board web site but that doesn't include meet the teacher night and other activities specfic to my daughter's school.
A: It might be a good idea for you to contact the Parent Council at your daughter's school and make a suggestion that these kinds of events could be listed, posted and also sent out to parents early in the school year. This takes some of the pressure off the office and gives the parent community an opportunity to be involved in communication with other parents.
Q: Currently i am in the eleventh grade, and want to know if you could give me some key pointers in succeeding in school, especially in the math and physics type courses. Although i haven't really started the challenging work in my physics class and have math in my next semester, i want to be well prepared prior to starting the hardwork, so when it comes i am ready. Also, does "reading" books benefit my learning and ability to understand.
A: By virtue of writing this question about how best to succeed in school, it appears that you already possess important personal and practical skills associated with success. Time management is one of the most important skills to develop - research has shown that spending at least some time every day on your work results in more success than cramming too much information into a short timeframe. Thus, set aside a time and place that is quiet and relaxing. Your state of mind during your study period can also influence how much information you are able to retain. Too much stress can decrease your ability to take in and process new information. Math and physics do involve some rote learning but using that knowledge to solve problems or create products is even more important.
Rote learning is primarily remembering facts; using knowledge helps you to understand more deeply. As for reading books, that is a very important and enjoyable activity for acquiring general knowledge and for thinking about issues that come up in the plot or in the development of characters that relate to real-life situations. Reading can provide new information, but can also enhance vocabulary and general knowledge about the world. Reading can give insight into human behaviour and can cause us to question why the author wrote a particular piece. Good readers tend to do well in school because much of school learning is dependent on literacy. Hope that helps.
Q: Our 4-year-old son refuses to go to school. He will chase my wife down the hall and in to the parking lot screaming (at the top of his lungs), and kicking. My wife has always stayed at home and she did spend some time with him in the class last week. The school is very reluctant in offering advice and help. It has been a summer of changes, new home, community and friends.
A: It sounds as though your son is experiencing some classic "transition" issues and these have been compounded by concurrent events such as the move. It is also too bad that the school is unable to provide support and advice during this important transition time. We know from research that the home-school connection prior to and during the start of school has a significant influence on how children negotiate this change. Given the lack of school administrative support, it is necessary to have open communication with the teacher about this. Surely he/she recognizes that your son is chasing your wife down the hall and that this is not acceptable (for safety reasons). There need to be supports in place to keep him in the classroom. Kindergarten teachers employ a range of strategies to help ease families into school. The use of these strategies depends to some extent on the teacher's beliefs about the best way to handle this. Some examples of strategies are: allowing the parent to stay with the child but reduce the number of minutes each day while praising the child for his growing independence; arranging for a kindergarten buddy or older child to greet the child and be his partner as school begins; having the teacher or buddy greet the child outside of the school and bring him in; allowing the child to bring an "attachment object" (such as a familiar teddy bear or blanket) to school (but kept in the coat room once school starts); setting up play activities at the beginning of the class so the children move immediately to play before they sit in a large group. Hopefully you and your child's teacher will be able to discuss this and to set up some strategies that will help your son. Good luck.