Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tip 50 Brain Happy Holiday Gifts

As pleasurable as holidays are for us and our families, they can also be stressful.  As you well know there is not only time spent buying gifts and decorating, many of us work to get our home ready for guests or family visits or need to plan our own trips to see others. There is also the stress associated with spending large amounts of money during the holidays. And, as excited as children get during this holiday time, they also sense parental stress and as a result you may notice your child is more irritable than usual or has trouble sleeping. There are actually a couple of fairly easy ways you can reduce some of the stress for yourself and your children while encouraging creativity and building self confidence. One is to help your child make gifts for friends and siblings.

Gift making is a great way to fill a dreary weekend while helping build your child’s creativity and confidence.
Homemade gifts may sound like a great deal of work, but actually there are some really fun gifts your child can make without much of your help or supervision and fill an entire cold dreary weekend. Some gifts that your children will enjoy making and don't require much supervision are:
Jewelry- Most hobby shops and many toy stores sell jewelry making kits. This can be a great gift for girls of all ages to make for friends or relatives. And homemade jewelry can be very colorful and unique, which makes it extra special. The kits are not expensive and are geared to children of different ages, so often there is very little supervision needed after you get your child (or a group of children) set up and ready to go. A friend of mine recently made a lovely bracelet and earrings for me that look quite professional and are easy to pack when I travel.

Special Poems Children have a natural love for rhyme which can be turned into a wonderful gift. Grandma, Grandpa and other adult relatives will cherish a poem written by their special child. It can be great fun to sit down on a Saturday afternoon in front of a brightly burning fire and help your child think of a poem to write for someone special. And once your child has composed it, you can help write it with a special gold ink pen on a piece of colored construction paper. You can then add to the glamour of the gift by helping your child select an inexpensive frame from Target or Wal-Mart.

Christmas Tree Ornaments - This is a tried and true gift school teachers often help children make for their parents but how about doing the same thing at home for aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. You can start with simple colored balls that you get at any store that sells decorations. Cover the kitchen table with an old sheet or a large piece of paper so spilled glued or glitter will be easy to clean up. Then using Elmer’s glue and some gold or silver glitter, your child can write a special message on the ball (love you to grandma or happy 2012 to a cousin) in glue and then sprinkle the glitter over the ball. After that your child can add whatever other decorations seem fun like gold stars, toy beads, you name it.

Another way to reduce holiday stress is to purchase inexpensive smart gifts for your child that will keep him occupied for hours at a time. When we plan our gift list as parents many of us want to buy one special gift that a child has been longing for all year. Of course that is fine if that fits into your budget and value system. But in addition to a special gift consider other gifts that not only keep your child occupied but have some brain building value. Gifts like play dough, paints and an easel, and craft kits for older children help spark creativity. For younger children consider at least a few gifts like crayons or markers with plenty of paper, puzzles, blocks and Lego’s. And for children of all ages, rather than purchasing an expensive video game that mimics a sports event or musical instrument, among the best and longest lasting gifts will be the real thing. A new football or soccer ball, real sports equipment or a musical instrument will be a gift your child will use for years and you will be encouraging two of the most important cognitive functions – social skills through sports and musical skills.  And by the way, many music stores rent or sell used guitars, drum sets, horns, etc.  Finally, without question, please include a few special new books that you and your child can read together if under ten and can be added to your child’s library if older. Remember, books of any kind build reading skills, so let your child’s interest guide you.

Tip 50 –The happiest holidays begin and end with gifts that are inexpensive but inspire pride, creativity, togetherness, and build skills that will be beneficial for years to come.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tip 49 - Reluctant Reader? Get Wired for Sound!

As winter approaches with its short gray days – if your child loves nothing better than to curl up with a good book, you do not need to read this post. But, if your child would rather hit balls than hit the books or rather Wii than read, then this blog post is for you.  Many children are what I call, reluctant readers. Some children like stories (on television or movies) but not if they have to read them. There may be several reasons a child is a reluctant reader. In some cases the child  may read too slowly to enjoy a book or story read alone, so they prefer watching it played out.  It’s not that this child can’t read, it’s just too difficult to be something the child will do for pleasure. Other children are more action oriented. They like to do things not listen about other people doing things. These children may have been reluctant listeners when they were younger..
Now, for the good news! Research shows that the first step to reading well and enjoying a book is enjoying a good story. We forget that humans have been listening to stories for centuries; reading though, is relatively new. When Columbus discovered America in 1492, only a very few people knew how to read. Until the printing press was invented in 1440, the vast number of humans had no access to printed text.  Even In the U.S.  reading is relatively new. Children were not required to go to school in all the states until less than a hundred years ago. And even then, children in school were not always taught “to read” the way we think of it today. In many rural classrooms reading centered around memorizing passages from the Bible and reading basic words helpful for buying and selling goods , crops, and livestock. Children were not required to “sound words out” or read to learn

So to get your reluctant reader to become an avid reader – get your child wired for sound by listening to stories as often as possible (and using any means possible).

ToddlersThe Nursery Rhyme Effect -It is worth repeating one of my blog posts from several months ago, that the best way to build a listening and language skills in a toddler is through nursery rhymes.  Repeat nursery rhymes routinely during dressing time, bath time, playtime or car rides to the day care center. You don’t have to actually sit down and read them to an active toddler, just add nursery rhymes you remember from your childhood to routine activities you do with your toddler each day.

Pre-schoolersEstablish Story time -Make story time a part of every bedtime routine. You can take turns having dad and mom or even an older brother or sister read a short story before bed every evening. It is a great way to quiet your child down for a nap or bed and provide an opportunity for intimate “quality time” each day.

Primary school yearsRead to and with your child each day - What you read together does not matter. So, go to the Library and let your child choose a book or two each week. Or, ask your child’s teacher to recommend books. But make certain you and your child read together for at least 20 – 30 minutes a day.

Elementary and Middle School years – Audio Books are fine - If you have a reluctant reader provide a routine time and place for listening to audio books. You can purchase them, download them to an iPod, or borrow from the library. Choose books you know your child will enjoy, like “Harry Potter” books, or books about celebrities or sports stars. Or let your child choose books for himself. If an older child is not reading for pleasure it is more important that she like books than listen to books you like. But try to set aside at least one-half hour a day when your child listens to an audio book. Certainly, this should occur before T.V., video game play, or other types of entertainment.

And  for all ages, when you are purchasing gifts for a reluctant reader during this holiday season, consider one or two new audio books before video games. Your child might not thank you at the time but she will in a few years.

The evidence?  Andreas Schleicher reported research from 2009 on 15 year olds in 18 industrialized countries around the world that was conducted as part of the International Student Assessment (PISA). The study not only evaluated student performance but also asked parents questions about how they raised their children. A major finding was that adolescents whose parents often read to them during the first year of primary school had significantly higher scores on PISA than students whose parents read to them infrequently.

Only a few generations ago, your reluctant reader might have grown into a very successful athlete, farmer, or merchant without any pressure as a student or adult to read prolifically.  But today success in adulthood depends on success in school and that depends on reading proficiency. Rather than forcing a reluctant reader to read, try building a love of listening to stories first.

Tip  49    Research indicates that you can build your child’s love of “story telling” and “story listening” and by doing so you can turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader. But, if you think your child might be more than reluctant, might actually have a reading problem, please get professional help. A little targeted intervention by a language or reading specialist can nip little problems in the bud.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tip 48 - Coaching Your Winning Teen

Yes, you read this right. This tip is about your teen, not a team. The good news is that your teen is coachable. Skeptical?   Brain science has revealed that there are two critical periods in brain development –  the first is from birth to about five years of age. The second critical period?  You guessed it, the teenage years.
What do I mean about a critical period?  It means your child’s brain is especially malleable.  For most parents of a teen that is a disconcerting thought, since your teen may seem to have rejected all parental influence. I understand. I recall a Saturday evening years ago when my oldest child Heather pulled her sweatshirt hood down over her face for an entire night because she was embarrassed she might be seen at a bowling alley with her parents and siblings. What she apparently didn’t realize is that there was little chance her teenage friends would have been there, and if they were, they would have been equally mortified at the prospect of being seen bowling with their family on a weekend evening. 
But here is the message: your parenting is very important to your teen- you just need to be a different parent than you were a few years ago. Below are some suggestions:
1.       Diaries and journals build creative expression and enhance literacy – Encourage your teen to express himself in writing.  Written language skills are essential to success in college and most careers.  One way to provide opportunities for your teen to develop writing skills is to encourage journaling.  A journal is a private log of thoughts, experiences, and concerns that promotes both writing and problem solving.  Because no one is grading it, a teen will often write for hours – just the act of writing builds writing skills But a key component is “privacy’, since your teen is more likely to use the log often and write more if he feels his private thoughts are secure.
2.       Create opportunities for dialogue – Her space, her topic. A teen’s world is busy so there won’t be many times to engage your teen in long conversation. But if you want to know what your teen is up to, you need to get a conversation going. When a time opens up, capitalize on it. You might be in the car on the way to a sports event or driving your teen to a party. Or, you might find your teen alone in his room on a weekday evening. When you catch a moment like this use it to talk – but let your teen choose or elaborate on the topic. Try open-ended questions and avoid any topic that might seem like you have an agenda. The idea is to get your teen talking freely. Conversation starters might be:
“I haven’t seen ________ for awhile. Are you guys still friends?”
“I was thinking about taking your brother (sister) to a movie. What have you seen that you liked? What’s it about?”
“What do you think I should get ______ for his birthday (the holidays)” Why would that be a cool gift?
“We’re thinking about a trip this summer, where would you like to go”?
3.       Don’t be afraid to maintain control Teens reject control but at the same time crave it. Your teen is experiencing a natural pull against authority. Nature is pushing your teen to become an adult and to separate from you, the parent. However, the irony is that your teen is not really ready to be independent. Research suggests that the frontal lobe, (the part of the brain that prepares for the future and delays gratification) is not yet mature and is extraordinarily vulnerable to effects of addiction and peer influence. Until your teen is an adult, you need to be his frontal lobe,  Provide your teen with goals:
a.        rewards for good grades,
b.      special events  for good school attendance or sports achievements
c.       maintain daily routines  like homework schedules and limits on cell phone use
d.      make a habit of assuring homework is finished before playing video games or watching T.V.
4.       Watch for addictive behaviors – Research suggests that teen years are the most are vulnerable to addiction of all kinds – substances, risk-taking activities, even video games. The plasticity of the teen brain means that it is more vulnerable to addiction than other age groups.  This can be a good thing if your teen is spending most of her time practicing sports or a musical instrument.  But , if you see your teen’s grades dropping or participation in social activities decreasing, these might be warning signs. Speak with a counselor at school or a trusted teacher and seek professional guidance. Teen addiction can be stopped easily if caught right away.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tip 47 Want a happy kid? The power of "No!"

I believe parenting may be more difficult now than it was for other generations, especially in our modern world of "instant" everything.  You and I had to wait.... for a meal to cook, for a special toy  on our birthday or trip to the zoo, for our favorite T.V. show, for our favorite song to play on the radio, for a phone call from someone special.

Today, even in the the most remote areas of our country, children have instant access to the Internet and on-demand television programs. Music is always accessible on an iPod & new games at the touch of a phone or tablet App. Your child can call, text, or Tweet anyone at anytime.  This instant gratification makes it hard to parent -- the older the child, the more difficult, because there are very few times and places where parents consistently have the opportunity to set limits and restrict access.

Yet research shows that ability to delay gratification leads to:
  • adult achievement, 
  • ability to control overeating,
  • resistance to drug or achohol abuse, and
  • vocational success.
How can you help your child develop the ability to delay gratification?  Say, "no", set limits and stick to them.

For children aged 5 -18 years - Parents  can work together to set limits:

1. TV AND VIDEO LIMITS Remember, television and videos should be viewed as entertainment, a reward for getting work or chores finished. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours a day.
2. NEW GAME AND TOY LIMITS Limiting new video games, iPod apps and toys to gifts for birthdays or as rewards for exceptional achievements helps children learn patience and the joy that comes from giving and receiving.
3. CANDY AND SNACK LIMITS Limiting sweet, fatty or salty snacks to one dessert a day or to special occasions helps children control cravings for high caloric foods and improves eating of nutritious foods.
4. EARN SPECIAL PRIVILEDGES  Opportunities to earn points can include: helping to prepare dinner or set the table; keeping a neat room with made bed for a specified time period; babysitting for a younger sibling for several evenings; helping mow the lawn, feed the pets, take out the trash, etc.
5. SET AND LIMIT AN ALLOWANCE Set a weekly allowance for necessary purchases with a savings target (10%). Help your child budget by putting some of the allowance (and monetary gifts from relatives) in a bank or savings account. Set a savings goal aligned for a special purchase like a new game console, a special pair of shoes, a trip to an amusement park- and allow your child to spend when they reach the goal or set a new bigger goal for a bigger purchase.

As your sons or daughters enter adulthood, the limits you set and stick to when they are young will enable the young adult to be patient, understand the value of earning rewards, and not be disappointed when he or she cannot "have it all".   Adult happiness depends not on instant gratification but the reward that comes from working, waiting and saving. Hours and hours of boring homework builds ability to do well on tests; boring practice builds athletes and musicians. Saving builds the capacity to afford a car, a home, and purchase necessities.

Tip 47 Help your child learn to delay gratification for a happier childhood and adulthood by setting limits, sticking to them and saying "No!"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tip 46 Leaders of Tomorrow: Imagine this!

I have written before about how parents can inspire leadership skills in their children. As Steve Jobs is being memorialized these past few weeks, his passing inspires thought about which of his many strengths propelled him and his visionary Apple products to supersede the competition. He was certainly not a pleaser; known for his irascible style. I think the Apple motto, "think different" is probably the key to understanding his success as an innovator. He trusted his intuition and creativity. He was able to ‘read’ our minds and figure out what the average person wants, not what we need. Translate, "if I had an extra $500 how would I spend it?"

Most of us don't necessarily strive to have a Steve Jobs as our son or daughter, although we wouldn't mind.  But we do want to cultivate that type of individualism and insight in our children because individuals with those qualities end up leaders in business and professions? How does a parent foster those skills? Answer, encourage imagination and awareness. Steve Jobs had a keen sense of what people want, if not a need to be liked.  He listened to those around him and pushed them to reach for the stars. He also trusted both his intuitions and his creative drive.

So how might you cultivate this kind of genius in your children?

     Cultivate the natural problem solver - age 4-8 Try to find time each week to play with toys like blocks, strings, pieces of cardboard and movable objects like cars or balls; things that children can use to create but don't do anything on their own. Then give your child a problem to solve. Some suggestions are below:
a.    How could you build a bridge over a lake? If this piece of paper is a lake how can we use our blocks and this cardboard so this car can go over the lake without falling in?
b.    Can you figure out what we could build that would make this car go so fast on it’s own that it would start at this side of the room and end up at the other side of the room? (hint…use the blocks to build a down ramp so that the car will build speed as it goes down and continue a far distance.) How high will the ramp need to be to get the car to the other side of the room? How smooth will it have to be? How can you use blocks to do that?
c.    Water play (floating makes for a good problem solving task) – Show your child how some objects sink (pennies, stones) and some objects float on water (an empty vitamin bottle with the cap on). Ask your child to find some things that she thinks will sink then find things that will float. Hand your child a bottle without a lid and ask him if he thinks it will float? Ask he why it won’t but the lidded bottle did? Help him figure out what makes something float.

  Imaginative play - Age 8 -15 -creativity starts with the ability to let imagination flourish – on the next blustery or rainy Saturday encourage your child to “dream the impossible dream.”  Some suggestions are below:

-- Design the vehicle of the future. Will it fly or move on the ground? How would it work? What would make it special? What kind of materials would it have to be made of?
- Draw (design) the house you would like to live in when you grow up. How many rooms will it have? What will you do in each room? What kind of furniture will each room have?
Let’s try to write a very scary story together. Who will the characters be? How old will they be? What will be the setting? What time of year will it be? Will there be a house or a building in the story? What will it be like?
 - What kind of world would you make if you were the "boss" of the world?
What kind of video games would you make so that math would be easier?"

Imagination and creativity open the way to helping your child achieve the Apple Motto -  "think different." If you add the ability to solve problems never encountered before you will build the primary traits of leaders. Cultivate those skills in your children and watch them soar.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tip 45 - Attention Please! Teen focus - the good, the bad and the brilliant

Did you know that sometimes it is the inability to focus attention that enables a youngster to see the world in a creative way? Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor at University of California Berkeley in her book, “The Philosophical Baby” and more recently in a lecture for TED has emphasized the double-edged sword of attention. Young children display what Gopnik refers to as “open attention” – an inquisitive nature that allows one to be open to everything going on around us to find what might be relevant. As we age, all of us become more biased in our attention; we see what we expect to see. This bias allows us to focus, say on a book chapter instead of the bustle of activity outside our window. But focus comes at a price, the better we can focus the less we see.  On the other hand, with open attention we can observe the unexpected and be free to let our mind and our imagination wander.  Both attentional capacities are important to different aspects of our lives. It is the balance between the ability to focus our attention to get a job done and the ability to see the world through open eyes  that provides all of us with  a balance between being efficient at work while holding on the the ability appreciate the awe of art or the joy of an unexpected juxtaposition of sensory experiences.
The younger a child, the  more open attention they will display. By the teenage years, parents often see a real pull and tug between your child’s desire to let their minds wander and the need to get work completed quickly and efficiently.  The irony is that teens who can focus on one task at a time until completion will be the ones who end up with more time for creative activities after the work is done.
So how do we help our children build the ability to focus when necessary yet maintain the open attention that allows them to view the world in new ways and think creatively? It is most likely through the balance of work and play. School coursework and homework provide periods where concentration and focus are demanded and thereby build a teen’s capacity to focus in order to complete assignments quickly and efficiently. That may be one of the most valuable aspects of homework, namely it builds tolerance for somewhat boring repetitive tasks-- improved concentration leads to more free time. Ways you can help your child develop the ability to focus are:
BEAT THE CLOCK - Use a timer to build ability to stick with one task for longer periods – Pre-teen and early teenage years -   before beginning homework, ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each specific home assignment they have that day. Then set a timer for that time when the child begins each homework assignment. The goal will be to see if your child can beat the clock but still get the assignment completed correctly and accurately. For each homework assignment your child completes adequately within the estimated time provide an “entertainment award” of equal time watching a favorite TV show or doing social networking on the computer.
Designate a regular homework time each day – earlier is better than later -  ALL AGES -With so many scheduled after school activities, many children do not get to their homework until after dinner, when understandably they are exhausted and find concentration difficult.  Consider scheduling a slightly later dinner and building in a homework time, perhaps about an hour before dinner each night, where it will be to your teen’s advantage to get as much homework completed as possible to free up time after dinner for more entertaining activities like phone conversations with friends.  Not only will your teen be a little less tired when tackling homework, but there will be a built in incentive to do it efficiently. (But please do not let your teen sacrifice quality for speed.)
Now what can you do to also encourage creative thinking?
SCHEDULE DOWN TIMES –ALL AGES - It is important for you as a parent as well as your child to schedule a designated period of time where attention is allowed (expected) to run free.  You may think of your time as “down time” or relaxation time. Some adults actually make it a formal meditation time. For you it may be surfing on the web, listening to music (we do ‘play’ musical instruments after all) or just taking a long hot bath with nothing to think about at all but how relaxing it feels. For your teen, it may be talking on the phone or listening to their favorite music. If it is scheduled, the time can be limited and there is no guilt about the time spent. The only thing to avoid during this time is passive screen entertainment because that is neither relaxing nor conducive to creative thinking. The goal is to let the imagination run free.
Tip 45 - There are two sides of attention – one is the ability to focus the other is the ability to have open attention and allow the mind to wander and imagination run free. Neither one is better than the other - balancing the two is the key. Creative individuals are usually those with open attention so helping your teen find a balance between the two kinds of attention may ultimately enable your teen to focus when essential and think creatively as well.
View the link below to hear Dr. Alison Gopnik lecture on many spects of the emerging mind of babies, young children and adolescents. The very last section is where she discusses attention in teens.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tip 44 - School pains? No gains!

How is school going for your child now the new school year is well underway? If you are concerned about your child's primary teacher (or any other teacher) this is the time to speak with the school principal to discuss your concerns. This is one area as a parent you do not want to have a “wait and see attidude.” There is no more important relationship your child will have than his classroom teacher. And according to educational journalist Peg Tyre who has just published a new book entitled The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve, all teachers are not good teachers and certainly not necessarily the best match for your child.  Tyre contends that the teacher-student relationship is one of the  most significant your child will have and can affect your child's self-concept for years to come. 

Teachers have a very hard job and I respect them for their dedication and tenacity, especially in this rough economic environment when educational programs are being cut drastically and class size is increasing. But teachers are human, and may have a child or two in their classroom they just have trouble warming up to or understanding. And, with the responsibility teachers now have to meet high stakes test requirements, they may feel the pressure to push their students more and be harder on students they feel are not achieving adequately. Some parents prefer demanding teachers, so ultimately the choice is yours. But if you feel uncomfortable about the relationship between your teacher and your child, speak up. The principal is a good person to speak with about your concerns. And, don't be afraid to consider moving your child to another school if you continue to feel the present school environment is not the best for your child. You know your child better than anyone else, so if your child seems depressed or anxious about school, that may be a sign to start exploring the option of changing to another teacher in the same school, or changing the school if necessary. All children would prefer to stay home from school, so just because your child complains on Monday morning is not necessarily a reason for concern. But signs of depression, anxiety, or declining grades should be viewed as a warning sign and a time to talk to your child, the teacher, or principal about issues that may be a concern.

Children under ten years of age do not yet have the ability to evaluate themselves very well. They rely heavily on the opinions of adults to form their own concept of their strengths and weaknesses. So a child is not likely to let you know if a teacher does not foster a feeling of self-worth. Rather, you may hear things like, "I am in the 'dumb' reading group."  Peg Tyre has stated, "you want to look at the relationship between teacher and student. What you want [for your child] is teachers who have a lot of respect for kids, who seem to know their strengths and weaknesses." 

When it comes to choosing a school for your child, there are many variables to consider:  from class size to curriculum; attitudes towards extracurricular activities and availability of art, music or athletics. It is not a good idea to choose a school because a friend recommends it, because your child may not have the same needs or fit that school well. And, it is also a good idea not to take a school’s description of their strengths for granted; when possible observe teachers teaching and watch carefully how the students respond to the classroom environment.

Tip 44 School is the most important choice you make for your child's future achievement so choose carefully and do not be afraid to change teachers or schools if your child does not seem to be thriving. School Pains? No academic gains!