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Choosing Your Child’s Teacher

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It’s a long year when kids are placed in an environment that does not fit how they learn best.

Parents often rely on the latest buzz around the neighborhood, soccer field or baseball bleachers to learn who’s the best teacher for next year.

But I never found those sources reliable. That’s because the real question is: Who is the best teacher for my child? So, here’s a set of questions to ask prospective candidates:

1. How do you honor kids in your classes? We’re hoping teachers rattle off a list of concrete examples that show how they find ways to make each child shine (regardless of their current academic level), how they peel back, as needed, to ensure kids don’t shut down, how they hold kids accountable for what they can do, and how they set challenges that are within reach of every child.

2. What percentage of the day are kids expected to be seated and quiet? How many opportunities to move are included within daily lessons (and can you give some examples)? If teachers stumble on providing specific ways movement is integrated into their curriculum or if there is a high percentage of seated, quiet time, this classroom may be problematic for kids who really need to move.

3. Are the majority of your lessons multisensory in nature? If so, can you give me some examples? Most traditional classroom lessons rely heavily on visual pathways. So good to know whether auditory, tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory stimuli are also included, especially if kids are not strong visual learners.

4. How do you create a “safe” learning environment? Ideally, teachers respond that they focus more on thinking (rather than just getting the right answer) and more on the process than the end product. So it may be a red flag if the teacher immediately refers to a set of classroom rules when answering this question.

5. How do you handle kids who are viewed as uncooperative or who do not finish their work? Looking to determine whether: a) the teacher views classroom problems as his or her responsibility to address or expects parents to bring about change; b) the teachers’ response to such kids could be considered punitive or “branding” the child (i.e. every student in the classroom can quickly name who always gets “in trouble”); c) withholding recess is used as a consequence for unwelcome behavior or not finishing work.

6. Do you assign homework that can be done independently by the child? How much time a night do you expect kids to do homework? Since parents seem to differ in regards to what’s an acceptable amount of homework and how much parents should be involved, good to know if the teacher’s homework policies are in sync with parents’ expectations.

7. How do you make learning joyful? (See Why Schools Fail for a list of ways to do this.)
But what if your school doesn’t allow parent input for teacher selection? Well, just a quick look around the classroom can be very telling. Parents can also answer the above questions as they hope their next year’s child would respond, and then give that to whoever is responsible for their child’s class placement.

 

The bottom line: Each year, kids spend more than a thousand hours in a classroom. Seems worth the time to ensure that environment is a good fit and one where the child can succeed.

Tips for Giving Kids Directions

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We can cue our kids that we’re about to give directions by placing our hands on their arms or shoulders.

We often become upset because we think our kids didn’t follow our directions. But did we ensure they processed them in the first place?

Here are some simple ways to help kids follow directions.

1. Give directions only after our kids’ brain registered that we’re about to speak.
Some kids really can’t “hear” if their back is to the person talking, or they’re unable to immediately transition from what they’re presently doing to tune into what someone is now saying. So this means we may first need to kneel down (for small kids) to make eye contact, and/or give tactile stimuli (e.g. put our hands on their shoulder)—something that ensures we’ve stepped into “their world,” front and center.

2. Have kids spin or jump or rock before (or while) giving directions.
Such movement wakes up the brain, increasing the chances that the information is processed.

3. If directions include materials, distribute those only after telling or modeling what to do with them.
This ensures that kids are less distracted and are not tempted to touch or play with the materials while we’re giving the directions.

4. Demonstrate what we do and do not want to happen.
Suppose we’re giving directions for an art project that requires kids to dip part of a piece of paper into a cup of water. If we don’t also model soaking the paper (as an example of what we don’t want), we can’t be sure that the kids fully comprehended what we meant by “dipping.” This applies to general directions, too. For example, if we want our child to walk directly to (wherever), we also demonstrate straying elsewhere to illustrate what we don’t expect to see.

5. Break up directions (as needed) to ensure kids can comprehend the entire message.
Instead of telling a child to wash his hands, get his shoes, and come to the kitchen, we may need to start with simply: Wash your hands.

6. If including more than one direction, motivate the brain to pay better attention by adding an element of fun.
In such case, we might tell our child to start jumping as soon as the directions start to get silly: “Take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then fly to the moon. No? Okay, take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then come stand on this line.”

7. Verify that the direction was indeed processed by asking a “choice” question.
Perhaps we just told our child to brush his teeth. But before sending him off to do so, we check for understanding: “Are you going to brush your teeth . . . or your nose?” Note that if we make the second choice something silly, it further increases the probability of the brain paying attention.

8. Select the fewest words possible to convey the message.
Fewer words mean there’s less for the brain to process. Compare: “Tiffany, I’m really needing you to bring your backpack to the front door so that you won’t forget it when it’s time to go to school tomorrow” with “Bring your backpack to the front door.”

It’s only when we’ve done all of the above—and the child still does not comply—that we can conclude that he’s choosing not to listen to us. But, more times that not, our kids just need a chance to process the directions—and that requires us to do our part.

When Labels Hurt Kids

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When we view kids as champions,
they act like one.

Mia is autistic.  Jon is bipolar.  Tyler is ADD.  Carley is manipulative. Tom is lazy. Jenny is shy.

If we look at how we often describe kids, it seems we may think they’ve become the diagnosis or description that follows the word “is.”

Interestingly, we don’t do this for every diagnosis. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say, “She is cancer.” Or, “She is canceristic.”

But that’s because there is a huge difference between “she is cancer” and “she has cancer.” The latter does not define the condition as being the whole person. Moreover, it implies a temporary condition that comes with hope for improvement.

When we slap an adjective after the word “is,” we also seem to infer a static view of the child. It’s as though we’re saying whatever the child “is” (as defined by the adjective) is as inherent as skin color.  Yet, there are no “genes” for the adjectives often used to describe kids.

So then why do we often frame them this way?  Maybe, it’s a quick, subconscious way to tell others to back off—that nothing they’re going to say or do is ever going to change how the child (or we) respond, since we view the child’s behavior as already etched in stone. Yet, how can that kind of thinking be ultimately helpful?

For example, if we think our child runs out into the street because he is impulsive or because he is autistic—does that then reduce his probability of being hit by a car? No, in other words, the drivers in the passing cars have no idea which child “is” what.  So we can’t be resigned to certain behaviors—if we want every child to be safe.

After decades of working with kids who’ve been given all kinds of diagnoses and who’ve been thought of as a string of not-so-attractive adjectives, I’ve learned a simple truth: Kids become how we view them.

So if we believe their behavior is unmanageable, they’ll give us out of control.  If we believe they are rude, they’ll give us sass. If we believe they are helpless, they’ll give us resigned.

I’ve also learned that kids usually feel judged whenever we view them negatively. When they feel judged, they get defensive. When they get defensive, they get combative. And so, is it any surprise that negative behavior escalates when negative perceptions prevail?

But then, what do we do if our child, for example, rolls his eyes at us when we ask him to do something?  While definitely a leap from framing our child as rude, we could respond with the following:

”Tony, I’m worried your brain is registering eye rolling as an okay and helpful response. Yet, I can’t think of a single place in the world where anyone applauds eye rolling or where doing that then improves the current situation. So what might be a different way to communicate that you don’t like what you’re hearing or being asked to do?”

With that response, we’ve shifted our perspective from thinking Tony is rude to viewing him as someone who has not yet learned a constructive way to express his dislike, and we’re moving forward with that mindset.

And guess what? Kids start to adopt positive behaviors when we shift our view of them in kind. For example, at the Brain Highways Center we believe every child is a champion. That’s the only word we use after “is”—and that’s the behavior they show us.

So here’s a challenge: Put $10 in a “perception” kitty every time this week you think of or describe your child with a diagnosis or adjective after the word “is” (unless that word is champion).  You may be amazed at the changes if that kitty stays empty.

Is Your Child in Trouble Again?

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If the child keeps doing the same behavior, should we consider another approach?

I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”

Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.

But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?

What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?

What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?

So how do we do that?

We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.

We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:

Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.

Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?

For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?

Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.

For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?

Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.

Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.

Too High Expectations for Kids?

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Success—not failure—is what
motivates us to do more.

Ask your child this simple question: Do you think I’m satisfied with what you do—or does it seem like I’m always expecting more?

We may not like how our child responds. In such case, we may find ourselves defending our prior actions. After all, don’t we have our children’s best interest at heart when we push them to go further, challenge them to perfect something, or expect them to start all over?

But is there a price for pushing and keeping the focus on what wasn’t accomplished?

I think so. When I was a child, my sisters and I were assigned kitchen clean-up after dinner. But when it was my turn, I inevitably forgot to clean a fork or I left crumbs on part of the counter—something small when compared to all the pots and dishes and scrubbing I had done.

Yet, I’d still get a speech on whatever I “forgot” to do. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure that I might as well forego trying to do a good job since I was still going to get the speech. In other words, who cared if the lecture now included a few more items that I had neglected? After all, everything I had cleaned was still going to be overshadowed by what I had missed.

To this day, I still don’t view myself very highly when it comes to cleaning up—and consequently, I still don’t even bother to try and do an excellent job.

Luckily, my parents only applied this never-seemed-to-be-enough scenario to my cleaning skills—and not to my academics, sports performance, or other aspects of my life. Scary to think who I might be today if they had.

Truth be known, harping to do better for whatever (and that’s how it’s processed from a child’s viewpoint) has a high probability of backfiring in the long-term. Low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and encouragement to lie (to avoid punishment for not doing something as expected) are just a few likely outcomes when kids don’t think they live up to “the standard.”

But here’s what we know about human nature . . .experiencing success—not failure—is what actually motivates us to do more. So how can we take that approach with our kids?

• We emphasize effort over final results, keeping in mind that effort is a variable that kids can control.

• We inch towards the desired result gradually. That means we may initially expect less of the desired behavior or we expect it for less time or less often.

So maybe my parents could have started by asking me to wash just the dinner plates, progressively working towards doing the rest of the dishes, the pots, the countertops, the floor.

And who knows? With that approach, I may have become someone who loves to clean, let alone a person who actually makes a place shine after doing so.

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