Do you look forward to the holiday season and a break from homework battles or do you anxiously look ahead fearing that the two-week holiday will cause your children to lose ground? Teachers and educators Lynn Morrison and Janice Harper were this week's experts for The Star's online education forum.
Morrison and Harper have more than 60 years of combined teaching experience, and are sought-after speakers at educational conferences. They recently co-authored a book, "Homework is for Kids, Not Parents: Practical Advice for Parents and Stimulating Activities for Kids."
Q: My son just turned 10 and is in Grade 5. He had a phonological and oral motor disorder. He spent seven years in speech therapy and has since been discharged. He has struggles with reading and writing since preschool. He is an intelligent boy who is very outgoing and excels at computers but can’t seem to get organized, has problems following instructions written or verbal, is VERY easily distracted, still has trouble tying his shoelaces, has a very unstable pencil grip, sloppy penmanship and difficulty with math. I requested an interview with his teacher and asked that he be assessed. He agreed and the more I pointed things out to him, the more he began to see a pattern.
My question is how do I push to have this done and not have him lost in paperwork? I know the waiting lists, seven years of speech taught me that, but I am so worried about his self-confidence. He feels “stupid” because he doesn’t get things and is always comparing himself to the other kids. I have another interview tonight to discuss his report card and I am hoping that there will have been some progress made with regards to getting him assessed. I just need to know how to stay on them (the school and board) and what the steps are. Thanks you for your time.
A: Your son is fortunate that you are his mother. You realize the importance of being your child’s advocate. I would suggest that you inform the teacher that you are also going to be speaking to the principal about your child. You can explain to the teacher that you are aware of the waiting-lists issue because you have been through it before, and you will be speaking to the principal to support the teacher with respect to services for your child, not to undermine him.
If you feel that you are not getting support from the principal, you may have to contact the superintendent in charge of your area of schools.
A few short term ideas, while you are waiting for an assessment are:
a) Having the school give your child a laptop computer for his classroom work. Since he excels at computers, this will give him confidence, and solve the poor pencil-grip issue and sloppy penmanship issue.
b) If a laptop is not in the cards, then try out various types of writing materials. Very often children with poor penmanship find success using felt-tipped markers because they don’t skitter across the page.
c) To help with the distractibility issue perhaps the teacher could move your child’s desk to an area of the classroom where he is unable to see anything but his desk and blank walls. He may want to put a cardboard enclosure around his desk to keep our external stimulae.
d) Ask the teacher to give your child one or two instructions at a time, and have your child repeat them back to be sure he understands what to do. When he has completed the two instructions, he can go back to the teacher for the next two. Alternatively, ask the teacher to write the instructions on the board.
We hope that these ideas help for the short term until you can get an assessment for your child.
Q: My daughter is 7, and an extremely bright, very talkative child. She has many ideas, and if her tall tales give a hint, she has quite an imagination. However, she does not do a good job of putting her thoughts down on paper. Her teacher constantly requests that she add more detail to her stories. Do you have a suggestion or a website that we could use to help her practice story telling (on paper) over Christmas? Thanks.
A: It sounds as if your daughter’s stories have lots of details when she is telling them. Here is a simple suggestion - have her “talk” her story into a tape recorder or voice activated computer. Then she can play back what she has said and write it down at her own pace. Her difficulty may lie in her fine muscle skills. Likely her brain works a lot faster that her fingers. She thinks up great ideas, but becomes fatigued in trying to keep up with her thoughts.
Also, a simple story plan may help. Before she writes, she could draw her story, or make jot notes about the setting, characters and plot. Then when she is writing, she has the plan in front of her to remind her if her ideas.
Another idea to try is retelling stories. Read a picture book to her and have her retell the story to you in her own words. If she skips details, point out to her how they make the story more interesting. She may need help at retelling at first, but with time will develop her skills. You should find that there is a transference from the retelling to her own story writing.
Q: My granddaughter (9) will be visiting me over the Christmas holidays for a week. I love to cook and I am also a quilter, but we cannot do that for the whole week. She does not like going out in the car. I plan on doing some of the above but what else should I do with her? Thank you.
A: How lucky for your granddaughter that you have such talents. I am sure that she loves to bake with you (what child doesn’t love the eating that follows?). The many benefits of cooking together are described in previous questions. Board and card games are always fun. See ideas in the questions about educational games. What wonderful memories you are creating with her. Here are a few ideas that she may enjoy doing:
* Origami Cards: Get an origami book out of the library and make cards for family and friends. Origami provides excellent practice in following directions and perseverance. After the cards are made, she could write notes to her friends at home and mail them off.
* Number Puzzles: The Toronto Star publishes a Sudoku puzzle every day. They are challenging and help to develop skills in logic, problem solving and strategizing. For an extra challenge, try out the Kakuro puzzle that is in the Sunday Star. Kakuro is Sudoku with a little bit of algebra added in. (It took me an hour to do the first one!!!) Enjoy this special time with your granddaughter.
* Logo Designs: A logo is a symbol that is designed so that it can be easily and definitely recognized. We can think of lots of logos representing hamburger restaurants! One example of a very popular logo is the intertwining symbols of the Olympic flag. The 5 circles represent the 5 continents. Create logos for yourself, friends, pets, family members or a famous celebrity. Be sure to make the logo represent an interest, hobby or something unique about the person or animal.
Follow these rules when you are making your logo: a) it should be symmetrical; b) no more than three colours should be used; c) it must be easily recognizable as having meaning for a certain person.
* Study French: Have your granddaughter phone Dial-a-Story at the Toronto Public Library every day (416-395-5400) and listen to a story in French. It is recommended that she choose the stories meant for younger children until she is sure that she can understand what is being read.
Q: My daughter is in Grade 3 and I would like to teach her after school. I would like some useful textbooks. Can you suggest some for me? Science books are very hard to find in the bookstore. Can you help please?
A: Most school boards recommend that children in Grade 3 spend 30 minutes on homework, five nights of the week. If your daughter does not have assigned homework from school, then you may want to talk to the teacher about what she could be doing at home. Reading is always our first choice because not only are children developing their reading skills, but they are also learning about the world.
Be careful about trying to teach your daughter. Sometimes we end up confusing our children when we try to take on the teacher role because we may be explaining concepts in a different way, or entering into concepts for which they are not yet ready.
Ask your child’s teacher for some science book recommendations. You will probably find them at the public library. Take your daughter with you to the library and encourage her to choose books that are of interest to her. We all learn best when we are involved in the decision-making process.
Q: I have three children, they are 6, 4 and 18 months. Is there an activity I could do with all three, that would engage all three of them? I have another question: During the school year, the eldest has a bit of homework but the 4-year-old none. What can I do with the other two while helping the oldest? Is there a way to make it a "family affair?"
A: Ideally, younger siblings can enjoy a craft or a video in another area of your home in order to avoid disturbing older brothers and sisters doing homework. However, we realize that this is not always possible due to the ages of the children. To make it a “ family affair,” the 4-year-old could look at a familiar picture book with the youngest child and retell the story, or the 2 younger children could be drawing at the other end of the table. Most board guidelines state that children should have homework in increments of 10 minutes per grade so your younger children should not have to be entertained in this manner for more than 20 minutes.
Our responses to previous questions have discussed the value of reading together. Here are a few other reading ideas.
* Have your children collect some favourite books and put them into a basket. Add a flashlight and a snack to the basket. Put some pillows under the kitchen table and drape a blanket over the top. Now the children have a fort. They can crawl into this fort and the older child can read to the younger, or they can all look at books together. The novelty of reading by flashlight is unparalleled. (We remember with fondness, reading by flashlight underneath the covers long after bedtime!)
* Make a magic wand by covering a ruler with sparkly paper. Glue a star on the top. Your older children can make these themselves. Now send them off on a word hunt around the house. They can point to words that they know and read them aloud to each other. The older child can be the note taker, and write down all of the words that they find. The kitchen and the laundry room are great places to find familiar words.
* The Toronto Public Library has a service called “ Dial-a-Story.” There is a new story every day and they are read in seven different languages. The stories are for children 7 and under, and for ages 8 to 12. Just dial 416-395-5400 and follow the instructions.
* Let the children decorate large pieces of paper that you can use at the table as placemats when you have guests. Perhaps the older children could incorporate holiday patterns into their decorations. They will be a big hit with your guests and a source of pride for your children.
Q: Is there any way to play "educational" games with kids, so that they don't know they are learning things? Do you have any to suggest?
A: Games teach children to reason, search for solutions, remember, order and classify information, make decisions and to plan ahead. They can also provide practice in specific areas such as vocabulary development, spelling skills and facility with numbers.
Playing games also helps to instill social skills such as sharing, taking turns and learning to lose. So the very fact that you are playing games with your children is educational, and they won’t realize that they are learning these skills.
However, most games have a specific underlying “educational” component. The old favourites such as Monopoly and Cribbage reinforce basic mathematical skills, and Scrabble and Boggle focus on spelling. Labyrinth is an excellent way to work on spatial skills while study after study has shown that playing chess helps to develop memory and problem-solving skills as well as reading and verbal aptitudes. There are many games for younger children to develop memory skills such as I Spy or simple concentration card games for any age. Don’t neglect co-operative games such as the mystery and logic game The Secret Door in which everyone works together for a common goal. Even simple card games such as Snap reinforce important skills such as matching and number recognition.
Pick up a book of card games from the children’s section of your public library. Encourage your child choose a game from the book, read the rules and teach it to the rest of the family. This is an especially good activity for a reluctant reader since these books are usually written in a simple, easy to understand fashion. When your child teaches the game, he or she will be practicing speaking with precision and clarity.
We cannot stress enough the value for children of all ages, of building with open-ended construction toys such as Lego. Constructing with this toy helps to develop spatial skills as children figure out which piece fits where. Girls sometimes need an extra incentive to engage in this activity and unfortunately, it is often girls who find the spatial aspect of math increasingly difficult because they have not developed their spatial sense.
Instead of purchasing a game, why not have your children make their own games? Using the inside of a file folder, the child can draw a path made up of squares with instructions in some such as “Go Back 2 Spaces,” “Pick up a Questions Card” or “Miss One Turn.” Then they can make cards with questions based on any subject that they are studying (the times tables, social studies or science facts etc.) On the back of the card, write the answer to the question. To play the game, the players take turns rolling the dice and moving through the squares. When a player reaches a square with a question, it must be answered correctly or a turn is missed. The game can become new again simply by making new question cards.
So, enjoy the holiday season playing games with your children confident in how much they are learning. Also, don’t underestimate the bonding that is occurring as you have fun together.
Q: I'm going to be home with my two children, in Grades 1 & 3, for three weeks. Most of my family does not live here. What can I do with them to keep them entertained?
A: Reading aloud to your children, especially youngsters in the primary grades, has a significant impact on their attitude and success in reading and helps to augment the bond between parent and child. The book, “Reading Magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever” by Mem Fox clearly and simply explains ways for a parent to develop this skill. You have the opportunity to read one-on-one or two-on-one – unlike the teacher who must read aloud to large groups.
Take the children to the library and help them to discover the endless variety of picture book titles available to this age group. Ask your teacher-librarian or the public librarian for some great new titles. The older sibling can also share a book with the younger child, maybe one received at Christmastime. Books that contain a repetitive phrase or sentence can allow both children to take a turn to read. The youngest can read the language pattern and the oldest can read the rest of the print. If your children have grandparents out of town, they may enjoy phoning to read to them or recording a read aloud on tape or CD and sending it to them.
Children’s bookstores like Mable’s Fables and The Flying Dragon also carry terrific collections. We have some extraordinary Canadian children’s authors.
Take time out from the hustle and bustle to read as a family. While you read that book you just haven’t had time to open, the children can curl up with the pile of books they brought home from the library.
“Pretend reading” by your Grade 1 child is quite acceptable. During this time many reading strategies are being developed including how to gain information from a picture, the direction of print and sequential reasoning. Snuggling up with your children either to read to them or with them engages everyone in the family in a very rewarding experience.
Writing during the holidays can take different forms. If you take photographs during the holidays, the children can choose their favourite ones to create a small book. Your oldest child can write captions independently. The youngest one could dictate ideas, but better still, write ideas sounding out the words. Although words may be misspelled, drawing on current understanding and knowledge of phonics to write, will help improve their spelling and writing skills faster. If they become anxious about the spelling, tell them to underline three words. When they are finished, if they ask, you can tell them how to spell those three words. For there is no better way to teach writing than to write and no better way to teach reading than to read! As a further bonus, reading improves writing and writing improves reading. At school, students enthusiastically read stories written and published by classmates. Again, why not send a copy of the book that recounts the holidays to a friend or relative!
Sorting and classifying is an important mathematical concept. If they receive new toys during the holidays, they can estimate the amount of space that the new toys will require and decide which ones to donate to those less fortunate, or throw away.
Young children can also begin to learn about community service. Sorting cans at the Food Bank is a possibility. Mathematics is based on number patterns. Create geometric shapes out of cardboard, unused cushion soles or discarded mouse pads. Glue the shapes to old film canisters. Supply a limited number of paint colours in foil plates. The children can dip the shapes in the paint and create patterns on paper bags or shelf paper. These wonderful pieces of art can supplement your wrapping paper supply!
Cooking simple meals or desserts together teaches children about many things including measurement, sequencing, co-operation and patience. There are great new cookbooks for young children that use photographs and large print to instruct the children step by step. Take a trip to such places as the museum, the art gallery, the Science Centre, heritage homes decorated for the holiday season, live theatre, children’s bookstores or your local library. Many of these places have special programs for the children during the holidays.
Broadening your children’s experiences builds their knowledge base and helps them to make connections more easily to new things they are taught at school. Our book Homework Is For Kids, Not Parents: Practical Advice and Stimulating Activities For Kids has many, many more suitable ideas that are helpful to parents.
Q: Since the introduction of the Harris curriculum it appears that parents are required to teach their kids the balance of the subject matter that the teacher doesn't have time to teach. In every conversation with any parent they complain about the quantity of homework. The rule is 10 minutes per grade. Whose 10 minutes is this anyway? Is the 10 minutes based on the time it would take a child to perform the same task in the morning or 10 minutes after a full day of school? Dropout rates are now 30 per cent. Childhood obesity is a concern. I read that the schools should allow for 20 minutes of exercise per day. If there wasn't so much homework maybe kids could play!
A: We understand your concerns and have heard similar viewpoints from other parents. On the other hand, some parents believe their children do not receive enough homework. It is true that the existing Ontario curriculum does contain extensive content. Once the curriculum reassessment is complete, it is hoped that the expectations will become more manageable and the dropout rate in high school will once again continue to decrease. However, at no time should the parent be expected to take on the teacher’s role. Parents are not trained in the methodology or the terminology and may cause confusion for the child. Many of us have waged war with our children all in the name of helping. The impact of your words cannot be underestimated. They are extremely powerful. Instead, your role during homework time is to design an environment that is conducive to learning and to help with homework only occasionally. More importantly, your relationship with your child can be seriously damaged if you take on the teacher’s role.
Many boards in Ontario and across North America do recommend as you say, 10 minutes per grade. You also bring forth another important point. Establishing a daily fixed study time is a key factor in completing homework. It is essential that children not be over-programmed. Kids of all ages need time for unstructured play that includes physical activity. Like us, they need time to unwind. Play is also an essential part of every child’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual development. We must never underestimate its value!
Choose a homework time that takes into consideration other activities, a time for snack or dinner and that everyone’s energy level diminishes as evening advances. When the school’s homework policy states 10 minutes, that is exactly what it means. There may be many reasons why it takes longer to complete. Procrastination, unclear directions, undetected learning difficulties or inappropriate assignments are some of the causes. As you mentioned, speaking to parents of children in the same class to find out if time and volume are common problems can help a parent to know how to deal with this concern. If it is a shared complaint, then it is important for a very small delegation of parents to meet with the teacher. The teacher may be unaware of the problem or how widespread it is. It is important to work co-operatively and respectively. Everyone is on the same team and wants what is best for the students. However, if you are unable to come to a satisfactory resolution, invite the principal to the next meeting. Document the horror stories to help others understand the reason for the anxiety. If it is not a common complaint, contact the teacher. Share your comments and listen to the teacher’s observations. Together implement a plan to deal with the situation. If you believe your child is simply procrastinating, send your child back to school with the work unfinished.
Children learn best from natural consequences. You can also attach a note to the incomplete work or make an early morning phone call, if you think a good effort was made but the task needed more time. Forcing children to remain at their desk into the wee hours of the night till homework is done is beneficial to no one. Parents are their children’s advocate.
Q: My son is in high school and I don't ever recall him doing homework over the holidays. Is this right?
A: Relax, literally. Your son will be delighted to hear that a good night’s sleep is important. Studies indicate that the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep has a direct effect on teen performance. REM occurs after 90 minutes of uninterrupted sleep. The teen who has the most REM sleep is more likely to remember what is taught. So if your son decides to catch up on sleep over the holidays, let him! 95 per cent of a person’s brain is developed by the age of 5. The last 5 per cent is not complete till teens are their 20s and is critical to their intelligence and reasoning skills. The workload in high school can be very intense. Time during the holidays to unwind and rejuvenate is essential to a person’s mental health. If your son is having difficulty at school, a meeting with the teachers to discuss why is in order. Is he attending class, does he have difficulty focusing or does he require some type of remediation, perhaps through extra help at school or working with a tutor. If your son is achieving satisfactory success at school, then the holiday is well deserved.
*Note from Morrison and Harper ... Soon the holidays, cheer and festivities will replace homework, class assignments, report cards and projects. Although many students look with excitement to the next two weeks without projects or deadlines, some parents may be concerned about the interruption in their children’s learning and its impact upon their return to the classroom.
As parents you can reinforce learning during the holidays without standard homework practices. You might seize this as an opportunity to demonstrate to your children that what they are learning in school has real value in their everyday lives. You do not have to take away from the holiday season. Instead you might use this experience to enhance their education!