Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mamapalooza Meet 'n Greet

Welcome to the OFFICIAL KICKOFF of Ask the Educator!

If you just met me today at the Mamapalooza event, welcome to my blog! I hope that you will return weekly to read posts about current topics in the space of parenting and children's education. As a classroom teacher, parent workshop facilitator and parent myself I get questions about parenting and education in the school yard, from friends and fellow educators that I instruct in class.

I will answer one question a week on Tuesdays (Don't want to push it as my 3 kids tend to have certain demands...like 3 square meals and clean laundry-HA!) and on occasion I will have an additonal entry usually for a giveaway or promotion. If you would like to sign up for weekly email please click the link below.

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I'd like to thank the folks who provided the prizes for the raffle at Mamapalooza:

Gina and Robin at Go Baby

Click on the OutMat below to check out the "OutMats" and other great Go Baby items.

Lori Sunshine, Author: I'm Not Really Tired

Click the image below to learn about this great story and buy the book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Let Go of My Leg, Please...

My pre schooler seems to love school but only after I get him in the class. At drop off he cries and makes it really difficult to say goodbye.

Many times children seem to love the idea of social situations, whether it is going to school, seeing a friend or family member, attending a party or going to a special place like Disney World. But when you get to your destination or meet up with the very people they were so excited to see your child becomes clingy and unsociable, crying and even throwing a tantrum; so what gives? Very often, children enjoy the idea or concept of that new or engaging experience. They might be happy about the thought of seeing their teacher or participating in a school ritual/activity but when they are faced with the overwhelming task of letting mom leave or dealing with the many personalities in the class it becomes too much. The concept of transitioning can be complicated for some children. Below are some ideas to help set up for transition to school as well as some other things to keep in mind:

Is your child getting enough sleep? Lack of sleep contributes to the “grump” factor a great deal.

Are they eating breakfast? Sometimes a mid-morning snack is too late for young children.

Are you leaving enough time in the mornings to get ready or are you rushing to school? Kids pick up on being rushed and may not process it as harmlessly as you do.

Are you showing up later then other parents to drop off? Coming in with another friend or group can be very helpful.

Do not belabor your "goodbyes". If your child senses the fact that you are uncomfortable, sad or also having a tough time leaving, they will use it. Conversely, sneaking away can also unnerve your child. Make your goodbye routine short and sweet: Kiss, hug, "I love you" and off you go. If your child tends to run after you ask the teacher for help. Discuss a plan.

Discuss with your child about their difficulty with drop off (during a relaxed time, i.e. during bath time). Try to form a plan with your child of what a smooth drop off should look like.

Teach your child to take a deep breath when they walk into a new situation. It is calming and sets up an important coping tool for your child to deal with stressful situations.

Finally, be sure your child is happy at the program. Ask the teacher and or director how they are doing during the day. You can also ask another parent who you like and trust to peek at your child if they pick up earlier or drop off later. If the problem persists or gets worse talk to your pediatrician, or trusted professional and make a decision if your child's needs require other professional help or if another program might be a better fit for the both of you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Praise versus Encouragement...A matter of semantics or more?

A couple of years ago when New York magazine had a cover story entitled “How Not to Talk to Your Kids – The inverse power of praise”, I nearly blew a gasket in Barnes and Noble about how overwrought parents have become about the things they say to their children. The story was written by a parent who had a son in a Gifted and Talented school in Manhattan. The father felt that he had praised his son too much and that his child had become not only dependent upon praise but expected it. The son, being told over and over that he was "smart" began to slack off as a result. “Why do my work, if I have such natural smarts.” To him, the hard work part of success in school has become a stigma. Coincidentally, right after I read this article one of my son's instructors scolded me, in front him no less, after I said "good job" when he performed a gymnastics move that I thought was worthy of praise. She quickly apologized after I gave her a nasty look.

So what's the deal with all this praise being bad? Some studies suggest that if we always reward a child with praise after a task is completed, then the child comes to expect it. Some research has also shown "that children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please".

What I become more concerned with is, how genuine is your praise and are you expressing it in a way that children understand what is good about what they have done? A speaker that came to an event for parents at my son's school once described a group of Upper West Side parents telling their kids who were sledding, "that is the best sledding I have ever seen!" Case in point: the praise is silly since sledding down a hill on the Upper West Side requires no real skills. And the term "the best", or any other superlative, basically bestows a judgment or rank. When you give a child "rank" they often believe they are what you call them and in this case, "the best". This can create almost a dependency on the rank and when it is not heard children begin to doubt their success and may go out of their way to try to regain the acknowledgement. Other terms that seem to fall into this category of descriptors like smart or smartest: “pretty” or “handsome”, “fabulous” and “amazing” and one of my least favorite terms, “awesome”.

The idea is that your words should be genuine and should tell children what was specifically successful about their actions. So how do we tell our children that they are moving in the right direction? Encouragement, which is more descriptive and even sometimes more implied through actions seems to get away from the emptiness of praise and can set our children on a course for finding success without gaining dependence on approval from us. Below are some examples of how choosing different words can strike the difference between praise and encouragement.

Praise: "You’re the best student I ever had."

Encouragement: "You are a fine student. Any teacher will appreciate you."

Praise: "I'm so proud of your artwork."

Encouragement: "It seems you really enjoy art."

Some of the encouragement stuff may seem unnatural to say. I think what is most important is not get too caught up in whether we are calling it "praise" or "encouragement" but that we become conscious about how we notice and comment on our children's achievements. Hanging up a picture on the fridge that your child drew or a good grade on an exam, speaks for itself. Your actions show you value their achievement. Instead of using a quick word (yes, like “awesome!”) to describe your child's artwork or a positive behavior, it might be more effective to discuss what they did in the artwork ("Tell me about this drawing") or why they made a specific choice ("what made you give up your seat on the bus?") or simply restating their ideas. You can also show approval by continuing to give your children opportunities to participate in positive activities and support their interests without over discussing their achievements. In other words, if they happen to be a strong reader, take them to the library and give books as gifts for special occasions. In the end, should we make a conscious effort to stay away from the ranking statements; "you're the best", "you're so smart", etc.? Yes, absolutely. Suffice it to say, it won't damage your kids for life if, every once in a while, they hear you say "I'm proud of you, good job"!

Friday, May 8, 2009

The G and T results are in! Now what?

Before I begin with what to look for in a Gifted and Talented program, if your child scored at or above the 90th percentile read the DOE information on Eligibility and Placement on their website at:


Be ready to scroll all the way down. Read carefully about the process, it is possible that your child might have the scores but the bottom line that there may not be enough spaces to accommodate the demand. My friend's son scored in the 99th percentile last year which made him eligible for the citywide G and T Schools; Anderson, Nest and TAG. Even with his top score, he did not get into any of the citywide programs. Furthermore, there were children that scored in the 98th or 97th percentile that were accepted and had no siblings currently in the G and T programs. Because he lived in Queens and there were no gifted and talented kindergarten programs in his area, he is at a local charter school and doing fine. The fact is, depending on how many students scored in the same rank as your child and whether or not you have another child already in the G and T system can truly determine whether or not there will be a space for your child. The constraints don’t end there. If you read carefully you will see that the DOE states that seats will be given out randomly after all other priority cases are taken care of - How frustrating is that?! Welcome to the Department of Education. After all, what would prompt them to be efficient since so many of us are banging down the doors to get into their schools? It seems that regardless of the stress and difficulties the city schools might cause us, more parents want to raise their growing families in NYC and in this economy the private school stress comes at a far more expensive price tag. Why not get your stress on the cheap?

So, with all this said there are a few pieces of advice I feel strongly about when looking at the G and T choices. If your child made it into the citywide pool, good luck. All three schools are quite good but each have a very different feel. The best thing to do is visit all three and don't send your preference sheet in until you see all three. Most importantly, keep in mind who your child is. Even though they are considered gifted it does not mean that all programs will be able to fulfill their needs. One school tends to stress to the students that they are "gifted". While another seems to have a more "normal" school feel. Also keep in mind the schlep factor. How well will your kid deal with a commute either with you or on a school bus @ 7:00AM? The DOE's school bus schedule can have children onboard that early. That can be a seriously long day for your child. Make sure you ask on your tour what the earliest time that children have had to be at their bus stop. You also want to consider that if the school is far away from your home or office, what will you do if your child is ill and has to be picked up from school? How will you handle attending after school social functions, attend play dates and birthday parties. While it may sound silly to consider these as factors in making your decision, attendance at social functions is important for bonding and has an impact on your child's social development.

In terms of the district wide gifted and talented programs there is much greater range in the effectiveness in each program. Some G and T programs were initially created to change the dynamic of a school's population. While in some cases, it may have done exactly what it set out to do; it does not mean that the changes were all positive. For some school's it created a "haves" and "have nots" situation. This is what prompted the changes in testing in 2008, hoping to level the playing field to create a more diversified G and T.

Some schools, like P.S.191, in Manhattan dissolved their G and T program because the school was too small and it created animosity amongst the students and parents. They're also some G and T programs that simply give more work rather than better work. Most G and T programs are housed in a regular school. Ask, "How does the G and T curriculum here differ from the regular education program?" You are looking for answers that describe how the students might go deeper in their questioning of a specific topic or that students might be expected to do longer term projects. Also make sure to look at the work in the hallways and make note about how the work differs between the regular education program and the G and T program. While extra arts, chess and foreign language are wonderful opportunities and are often offered in G and T programs, be sure not to base your choice only on these factors. Be sure to find out about the administration (How long has the current administration been in place?, How well do they work with the PTA?, What are the philosophies of the school?, etc.) You might also want to check on the DOE website to see how many parents have responded to the parent survey of those schools.

Keep in mind that when you send your child to any school you are buying into many different people. The NYC DOE is one of the largest and most complex public school systems in the country with an administration that can change at any time, a huge and varied group of teachers (a "bad" one can pop up in the best of schools), a PTA, and a group of children that can create any type of dynamic. One of your most important hopes is that the school will always work with the ever-changing needs of your child. There are many factors for a successful relationship and while you hope you are making the right decision, there are no guarantees. You just need to look at all the variables and make the best choice with the information you have.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Best Mother's Day Gift?

That's a trick question if you think about it. My best answer is really “my children”. After all, they are the reason I get the title “mother” and honestly, I work to earn the respect that goes with that title daily. Some days are tougher than others but after the deep heartfelt answer, let’s face it, we all have those certain gifts that brought us true joy. For me, the jeweled baby shoe charm was a great surprise and the blue topaz cocktail ring turns a lot of heads. While these wonderful, thoughtful gifts from my husband (hell, I'm not even his mother!) were beautiful and memorable there was another gift that was so touching it has become a part of my Mother's Day ritual years after it was given to me.

It was a gift from my husband’s sister-in-law. She had asked the mothers she was close with to email pictures of their children or grandchildren about a month in advance. I thought she would have a nice decorated photo frame or some other lovely magnet. But when they day came, every mother and grandmother received a flat white jewelry box. Inside the box was a beautiful pin and hanging from it were the pictures of our children. She had turned our pictures into Shrinky Dinks! She used a special safety pin that had hoops, so a picture or charm could hang off of it with a small jewelry link.

This creative, vintage gift was the hit of the party. I now proudly wear my "Mama Shrinky Dink Badge" every year. It is a Mother's Day custom that I really look forward to. The only difference this year is I have to replace the heart charm that sits in middle hole and create a Shrinky Dink for my youngest child, born last June.

This is great idea to do with your kids. It is inexpensive, clever and gives a mom a wearable annual keepsake. My only suggestion, after you finish cooling your shrinky dink put clear nail polish on it, otherwise, the pictures can be destroyed if a drink or any liquid spills on them.

Below is how to on the shrinky dink:


This is the link to buy the pins and charms:


You will also need silver earring/necklace links to attach the pictures/charms to the pin. If you can't find it on the site you can find it any craft store.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Parent Guilt

I have decided to make a very good friend of mine, Vicki Vila, my guest blogger. We had a long talk about "What do you give your kids for lunch?" and it inspired her to write this very insightful article for her daughter's daycare newsletter. I am proud to say there is a quote of mine that is used in the piece but most of all I'm proud that our conversation made her realize that we all do the best we can!

Parent Guilt

by Vicki Vila

How did I become the string cheese mother? You know, the one who puts a stick of Polly-O in her daughter's lunch bag and calls it good protein?

Like everyone else, I'm harried. I save the lunch preparation until the last minute. The last-last minute. And I feel pangs of guilt, though it's not as though I'm making grand efforts to change my slapdash ways.

Much of parenting is like that. We hold ourselves to high standards when our precious young are but babes, especially first-time parents. (They will get read to three times a day! They will think raisins are a divine snack and cookies evil! They will only watch educational TV for a half hour a day!). Then harsh reality sets in, and before you know it, cereal becomes a major food group and Noggin is your trusty substitute for “quality time” with your child. (“You know it's bad,” a good friend of mine said, “when your kid excitedly says 'Franklin's next!' before Moose A. Moose does.”) Such compromises must be made for the sake of sanity, you tell yourself, but a little something still gnaws at you.

I know that my mothers- and fathers-in-arms also feel this burden of guilt, often on a daily basis. But since the year is still fairly new, I would like to propose a resolution of sorts: let's stop feeling so badly about our parenting “sins” in 2009. I would argue that our crop of parents is doing quite an impressive job raising children. Consider:

More men have downsized their jobs or started working from home to spend more time with their children. The acronym SAHD (stay-at-home dad) is a recent coinage, and all it takes to find a father who is involved in the daily child-rearing (and schlepping) is a quick look around your house or your neighborhood. That alone is quite a change from when we were growing up.

Modern mothers, most of whom return to the workforce after having children, are giving as much of themselves as they can to their babies and young children. They agonize over the decision of who should care for their child while they are away. They engage in heated debates about breast vs. bottle to make sure they are choosing what will work best for their whole family. According to government data, the percentage of infants in the United States who were ever breastfed increased from 60% among infants who were born in 1993-1994 to 77% among infants born in 2005-2006. More babies are still being breastfed at the age of six months, too, which is significant if you consider that in the middle of the 20th century, most American women were feeding their babies formula, according to the article “Baby Food,” by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker magazine article.

But more than that, all of us Kid's Korner parents, like the rest of our parenting peers, are making sacrifices small and large on a daily basis so that we can give our children the best WE have to give. The mother with a nursing infant at home, who takes the time to bring her older son on a class trip, then has to rush back home for the next feeding. The father who adds more than an hour to his daily commute through Manhattan traffic to take his child to school and pick her up. The mother who arrives late at work because she was putting on a presentation for her child's class.

And I do have to say that our school's parents put this string cheese mom's lunches to shame. I came in for a visit the other day, and was impressed at the variety of the foods being tucked into lunch bags. Macaroni and cheese with chicken fingers; meat, veggies and corn on the cob; a homemade noodle casserole. It inspired me to do better, that's for sure! (Though if I can't measure up, I won't worry. A good friend of mine, who has three children, one a baby, confided that she gives her older children the same thing for lunch every day. Sunflower nut butter and jelly sandwiches, with raisins on the side. It's fast and reliable, she said, and “In this economy, they should be glad they're not living on the street!”).

In case all this doesn't convince you that you're doing a pretty good job, consider this from a Danish sociologist named Lars Dencik, whose 1989 writing was quoted in the book “The Nurture Assumption:”

Until recently, he wrote, “Childhood was not the phase of a person's life to which we paid all that much attention, nor did it prompt the nagging anxiety which we see all around us today. On the contrary, children were liable to be neglected, abused and ill-treated....The guilty conscience, which accuses us of not paying sufficient attention to the interests of the child, and which nowadays so plagues parents and other caregivers, is in fact a very new and rather unique feeling in our modern epoch.”

So take heart, and remember this: the true supermoms and superdads are simply people trying to do their best despite countless daily frustrations. They don't look like anything special and blend in easily on a crowded street. But like parents immemorial, their eyes betray a certain kind of cagey haggardness and they look a little fragile, like people wearing their hearts on their sleeves are wont to look. Give one a seat on the subway next time you see one, or if you are one, please sit down.