Playmaking for families

Making plays together: a way to stimulate children’s imaginations and performance skills. It’s also a way to get family members communicating and interacting creatively. I can see some hazards–parents have to be willing to hear tough truths about their children’s perceptions and experiences–but when it’s done in a spirit of warmth and respect, playmaking can be transformative and  pleasurable. I’d be careful about using this without professional help in a situation of serious trouble in the family, but for most families, I think it’s a simple, delightful and brilliant idea:

thank you to Rebecca McMillan and the Brain Cafe for one more great idea!

Beware ‘neuroscience’ applied to education!

Neuroscience is one of the most exciting frontiers in our world today. Discoveries are being made that can transform our understandings of learning, teaching, resilience, and recovery from trauma. The concept of neural plasticity, for example, with discoveries of the extraordinary capacity of a brain to find work-arounds and continue developing across the lifespan–in spite of any previously diagnosed limitations of a person’s potential–supports optimism and continued efforts for parents and educators committed to the  optimal development of all children.

But there’s a lot of opportunistic misinformation, toys, electronic games, and gimmicks for sale being dressed up in the guise of neuroscience. Daniel Willingham suggests care in buying into stuff and educational practices that proponents describe as supported by neuroscience–currently there’s a lot more junk than treasure out there being called ‘neuroscientific’:

Meeting with the Teacher: When? How to Make it Worthwhile?

Parents often wonder, “When is the best time during the school year to meet with my child’s teacher?” and “How can I ensure that such meetings are as productive as possible?” Here are some practical suggestions.
Blog – Time to Meet the Teacher

Meeting with the Teacher:

When’s a Good Time? How To Ensure It’s Worthwhile?

By Joanne Foster, EdD

First semester started a few months ago, and by now most parents have a pretty good idea of how their child is doing at school. Some kids are bringing home A papers, while others are getting marks in the B, C, or D range. There are youngsters who are achieving excellent grades in only one or two areas, or who are having difficulty in particular subjects.

And how are the kids feeling? This will vary, depending on how they’re doing at school. Some kids will be happy, confident, or excited about their progress. Those who are experiencing issues of some sort may be sad, worried, or frustrated.

By this time in the school year, parents generally have a sense of whether their child is functioning at a level that is on par with the previous year’s work, and whether that is in the upper, mid, or lower range in relation to grade expectations. If parents don’t have a sense of this, it’s time to meet the teacher.

Similarly, if grades are low—indicating some difficulties—or if a child is upset or is discouraged abut learning, then it’s also time to meet the teacher.

What follows here are some tips to help parents initiate and engage in meaningful meetings with their child’s teacher.

  • TAKING PRELIMINARY STEPS: Start by thinking carefully about what you want to address. Talk with your child about any concerns you or he might have. Listen carefully. Ask questions. Have a look at his assignments. Find out what he’s proud of, bothered by, enjoying, or possibly avoiding—and why.  Reassure him that a good school year is still in the making, and that you’re available to help make that happen. Talk about the importance of touching base with the teacher so as to be able to develop or reinforce home and school connections, which will benefit everyone involved.
  • MAKING ARRANGEMENTS: Contact the school to arrange a meeting with the teacher. Try to be as flexible as possible about the timing so you won’t have to wait too long. Note what you want to discuss, and let the teacher know this in advance. Prioritize. Select one or two key issues, not a whole raft of things. That way you’ll be focused, and the teacher will be prepared. Make brief notes, and bring them with you to the meeting.
  • STAYING FOCUSED: Identify your concern clearly, and then think about phrasing key points in the form of three or four questions. This can be useful for purposes of discussion. For example, “Bethany is having trouble with math this term. She’s discouraged because she’s done poorly on several assignments. Why is she finding it so difficult? What can she do to strengthen her understanding of the material? How can we help her?” This combination of facts (pinpointing the concern), and inquiry (why is the problem occurring, what can the child do, and how can parents assist) serve to get right to the heart of things. However, ask questions one a time (not as a barrage), and pay close attention to what the teacher has to say so that a productive dialogue ensues.
  • CREATING A FRUITFUL EXCHANGE OF IDEAS: Stay calm. And, be honest, open, and conversant if the teacher has questions or suggestions for you. A meeting with the teacher is a collaborative opportunity to explore and resolve concerns (yours, hers, your child’s) but there may be surprises that come to light along the way. The teacher may have some observations or recommendations you weren’t anticipating, and your comments or perspectives may be unexpected as well. Respectful listening, and a willingness to work through things together become extremely important.
  • FOLLOWING UP: As the meeting winds down, try to ensure that there are some “take-aways” for everyone. That is, a proposed action plan for you, for the teacher and, potentially, for your child. It’s also prudent to set up a time to meet or talk again in the near future so as to ascertain if recommendations are working, or if they require some sort of adjustments. If your child is going to be asked to take initiative or responsibility for change, then you and the teacher will have to convey that to him, while continuing to work collaboratively and being available to offer guidance, encouragement, and support as needed.

Parents who have questions about their child’s educational program or progress, or who observe their child feeling troubled, should consider meeting with the teacher.  Those meetings are likely to be more productive and beneficial if parents take the time to reflect upon these five points—thinking about how they might fit into any overall plan on behalf of their child.

All Kids Can Thrive: A Call to Action

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; October, 2012.


There’s a good reason that everyone is talking about this book. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at the failings of a society where too many children are growing up without the tools they need to create meaningful and fulfilling lives for themselves. As Tough writes, ‘The biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face [are] a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.’ (p. 195)

And it’s not just poor kids who have problems due to high levels of stress and insecure relationships with their parents. Tough also reviews research on kids who grow up in affluent families and communities, and offers some startling conclusions. Simply put, rich kids have many of the same problems as those experienced by poor kids. Both groups are more likely than middle class kids to experience low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal afterschool supervision. Furthermore, wealthy kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence. Reviewing the findings, Tough writes, ‘The emotional disconnection that existed between many affluent parents and their children often meant that the parents were unusually indulgent of their children’s bad behavior.’ (p. 83)

In spite of Tough’s dire analyses of how bad things are for far too many children in far too many communities, How Children Succeed is one of the most encouraging books I have read on this topic. He weaves thoughtful stories of real children, teenagers, and adults into current research findings on child development and resiliency, coming up with recommendations that promise to transform society if we pay attention to them.

He describes research on executive function—emotional and cognitive self-regulation, which affects attention, impulsivity, self-soothing, anger management and other skills involved in coping with stress and challenge. These are skills that children growing up in poverty are a lot less likely to have. ‘The reason researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive function,’ he writes, ‘is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills…If we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way.’ (p. 21)

Environmental risks like family turmoil, chaos, and crowding have a big impact on measures of children’s stress, but only when mothers are inattentive or unresponsive: ‘High quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress-response system…Good parenting—being helpful and attentive in a game of Jenga—can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.’ (p. 32) Tough concludes that parents’ responding sensitively to infants’ cues has a long-lasting effect on children’s prospects, leading them to be more curious, self-reliant, self-confident, calm, and better able to deal with obstacles.

Although ‘character’ means different things to different people, there are several qualities that can be thought of collectively as ‘character’ that have been shown both to be important to success and well-being, and also teachable: bravery, fairness, integrity, humour, zest, appreciation of beauty, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude. Tough reviews successful attempts to teach these qualities—not as ways to impose middle class ideas of morality, but rather as ways for all kids to experience personal growth, achievement, and fulfillment.

Parental warmth and nurturance are the most important factors leading to infants and young children thriving. Later on, as children enter adolescence, one person who takes them seriously, believes in their abilities, and challenges them consistently to improve themselves, can make all the difference.

Tough concludes that ‘The most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well… First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.’ (p. 182)

As a child gets older, Tough continues, he needs ‘more than love and hugs. He also need[s] discipline, rules, limits, someone to say no. And what he need[s] more than anything is some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.’ (p. 183) Children need support in learning how to manage failure, and in order to do that, they need to experience failures they can cope with. This is what Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset: kids need to learn how to see failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn.

It’s also, in some ways, what Amy Chua writes about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An important difference between Tough’s recommendations and Chua’s description of her own parenting is that Tough emphasizes the importance of support, warmth, security, and nurturing. I think their goals are probably similar, though, that kids build their self-confidence on a solid foundation of achievement rather than the shifting sands of other people’s opinions or attention.

Tough’s recommendations for going forward are radical, but doable. He says we need a coordinated system that might start with comprehensive pediatric wellness centers like Nadine Burke Harris has established in Bayview-Hunters Point, in San Francisco. We might continue with parenting interventions that help parents establish secure connections with their infants. We might implement early childhood education  programs that have shown dramatic positive results. We also need to provide supports at school and outside of school for kids as they move into adolescence, as well as the adults in their lives. Science demonstrates that society can make a difference to kids’ outcomes. This book provides a call to action for thinking about how to do that.






Old School is New Again

New evidence supports the importance of rote learning demands in education. It’s all about balance– yes, kids need creative problem-solving and autonomy and engagement in their schooling, but they also need to acquire basic skills  that are best mastered through memorization and repetition. Multiplication tables, word roots, and penmanship are best learned the boring old-fashioned way. Once mastered, these skills provide a foundation for more interesting and engaging learning.

In another great thought-piece, ‘ Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts and Word Roots),’ Annie Murphy Paul discusses these ideas:

5 ways to increase happiness

There are a lot of reasons people are feeling more stressed right now than usual–Hurricane Sandy, economic worries, political uncertainty, and also (in the northern half of the northern hemisphere) the fact that it’s November and the light is decreasing every day.

If you’re a parent–specially of a small child–it becomes even more important to manage that stress well. Little ones absorb our feelings and worry when we worry. Here are five great ideas for coping, and reducing the likelihood of the added stress burden leading to further problems:

5 ways to increase happiness.

via 5 ways to increase happiness.

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology

A thought-provoking article on the importance of real–not electronic–community and connection. Also perhaps a cautionary tale about the isolation that electronic connectivity brings — fascinating! This suggests a need to rethink the ways we’re connecting with our friends and neighbours–open the doors, let the children out, ask people in!

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology.

via In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology.