The Key to Smarter Kids: Talking to Them the “Right Way”

By Annie Murphy Paul

The key to smarter kids: talking to them the right way.  When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families. But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents—a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three—more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journalPediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking.

Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference last year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago—knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world—how big or small or round or sharp objects are—predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization”—setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.

How to Avoid Battles Over Homework

The Huffington Post

Posted: 09/23/2013 2:40 pm

For this back-to-school season, I would like to offer some advice about one of the most frequent problems presented to me in over 30 years of clinical practice: battles over homework. I have half-jokingly told many parents that if the schools of New York State no longer required homework, our children’s education would suffer (slightly). But, as a child psychologist, I would be out of business.

Many parents accept this conflict with their children as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. These battles, however, rarely result in improved learning or performance in school. More often than not, battles over homework lead to vicious cycles of nagging by parents and avoidance or refusal by children, with no improvement in a child’s school performance — and certainly no progress toward what should be our ultimate goals: helping children enjoy learning and develop age-appropriate discipline and independence with respect to their schoolwork.

Before I present a plan for reducing homework battles, it is important to begin with this essential understanding:

The solution to the problem of homework always begins with an accurate diagnosis and a recognition of the demands placed on your child. Parents should never assume that a child who resists doing homework is “lazy.”

Every child whose parents or teachers report ongoing resistance to completing schoolwork or homework, and every child who, over an extended period of time, complains that he “hates school” or “hates reading” should be evaluated for the presence of an attention or learning disorder.

These children are not lazy. Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted or angry — but this is not laziness. I frequently explain to parents that, as a psychologist, the word lazy is not in my dictionary. Lazy, at best, is a description, not an explanation.

For children with learning difficulties, doing their homework is like running with a sprained ankle. It is possible, although painful, and they will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task.

A Homework Plan

Homework, like any constructive activity, involves moments of frustration, discouragement and anxiety. If you begin with some appreciation of your child’s frustration and discouragement, you will be better able to put in place a structure that helps him learn to work through his frustration — to develop increments of frustration tolerance and self-discipline.

I offer families who struggle with this problem a Homework Plan:

• Set aside a specified — and limited — time for homework. Establish, early in the evening, a homework hour.

• For most children, immediately after school is not the best time for homework. This is a time for sports, for music and drama, and free play.

• During the homework hour, all electronics are turned off — for the entire family.

• Work is done in a communal place, at the kitchen or dining room table. Contrary to older conventional wisdom, most elementary school children are able to work more much effectively in a common area, with an adult and even other children present, than in the “quiet” of their rooms.

• Parents may do their own “homework” during this time, but they are present and continually available to help, to offer encouragement, and to answer children’s questions. Your goal is to create, to the extent possible, a library atmosphere in your home, again, for a specified and limited period of time. Ideally, therefore, parents should not make or receive telephone calls during this hour. And when homework is done, there is time for play.

• Begin with a reasonable — a doable — amount of time set aside for homework. If your child is unable to work for 20 minutes, begin with 10 minutes. Then try 15 minutes the next week. Acknowledge every increment of effort, however small.

• Be positive and offer frequent encouragement. Make note of every improvement, not every mistake.

• Anticipate setbacks. After a difficult day, reset for the following day.

• Give them time. A child’s difficulty completing homework begins as a problem of frustration and discouragement, but it is then complicated by defiant attitudes and feelings of unfairness. A homework plan will begin to reduce these defiant attitudes, but this will not happen overnight.

Most families have found these suggestions helpful, especially for elementary school children. Establishing a homework hour allows parents to move away from a language of threats (“If you don’t… you won’t be able to…”) to a language of opportunities (“When” or “As soon as” you have finished… we’ll have a chance to…”).

Of course, for many hurried families, there are complications and potential glitches in implementing any homework plan. It is often difficult, with children’s many activities, to find a consistent time for homework. Some flexibility — some amendments to the plan — may be required. But we should not let the complications of scheduling or other competing demands deter us from establishing a reasonable homework routine.

How Physical Fitness May Promote School Success

The New York Times

Students exercise during physical education class at P.S. 457 in the Bronx.Librado Romero/The New York TimesStudents exercise during physical education class at P.S. 457 in the Bronx.

Children who are physically fit absorb and retain new information more effectively than children who are out of shape, a new study finds, raising timely questions about the wisdom of slashing physical education programs at schools.

Parents and exercise scientists (who, not infrequently, are the same people) have known for a long time that physical activity helps young people to settle and pay attention in school or at home, with salutary effects on academic performance. A representative study, presented in May at the American College of Sports Medicine, found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who ran around and otherwise exercised vigorously for at least 10 minutes before a math test scored higher than children who had sat quietly before the exam.

More generally, in a large-scale study of almost 12,000 Nebraska schoolchildren published in August in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers compiled each child’s physical fitness, as measured by a timed run, body mass index and academic achievement in English and math, based on the state’s standardized test scores. Better fitness proved to be linked to significantly higher achievement scores, while, interestingly, body size had almost no role. Students who were overweight but relatively fit had higher test scores than lighter, less-fit children.

To date, however, no study specifically had examined whether and in what ways physical fitness might affect how children learn. So researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently stepped into that breach, recruiting a group of local 9- and 10-year-old boys and girls, testing their aerobic fitness on a treadmill, and then asking 24 of the most fit and 24 of the least fit to come into the exercise physiology lab and work on some difficult memorization tasks.

Learning is, of course, a complex process, involving not only the taking in and storing of new information in the form of memories, a process known as encoding, but also recalling that information later. Information that cannot be recalled has not really been learned.

Earlier studies of children’s learning styles have shown that most learn more readily if they are tested on material while they are in the process of learning it. In effect, if they are quizzed while memorizing, they remember more easily. Straight memorization, without intermittent reinforcement during the process, is tougher, although it is also how most children study.

In this case, the researchers opted to use both approaches to learning, by providing their young volunteers with iPads onto which several maps of imaginary lands had been loaded. The maps were demarcated into regions, each with a four-letter name. During one learning session, the children were shown these names in place for six seconds. The names then appeared on the map in their correct position six additional times while children stared at and tried to memorize them.

In a separate learning session, region names appeared on a different map in their proper location, then moved to the margins of the map. The children were asked to tap on a name and match it with the correct region, providing in-session testing as they memorized.

A day later, all of the children returned to the lab and were asked to correctly label the various maps’ regions.

The results, published last week in PLoS One, show that, over all, the children performed similarly when they were asked to recall names for the map when their memorization was reinforced by testing.

But when the recall involved the more difficult type of learning — memorizing without intermittent testing — the children who were in better aerobic condition significantly outperformed the less-fit group, remembering about 40 percent of the regions’ names accurately, compared with barely 25 percent accuracy for the out-of-shape kids.

This finding suggests that “higher levels of fitness have their greatest impact in the most challenging situations” that children face intellectually, the study’s authors write. The more difficult something is to learn, the more physical fitness may aid children in learning it.

Of course, this study did not focus specifically on the kind of active exercise typical of recess, but on longer-term, overall physical fitness in young children. But in doing so, it subtly reinforces the importance of recess and similar physical activity programs in schools, its authors believe.

If children are to develop and maintain the kind of aerobic fitness that amplifies their ability to learn, said co-author Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois and a fellow at the university’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, they should engage in “at least an hour a day” of vigorous physical activity. Schools, where children spend so many of their waking hours, provide the most logical and logistically plausible place for them to get such exercise, he said.

Or as he and his co-authors dryly note in the study: “Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people.”

To Help a Shy Child, Listen

The New York Times

Joyce Hesselberth

Toward the end of the summer, I was seeing a middle-school girl for a physical. The notes from a clinic visit last spring said she was a good student but didn’t talk enough in class. So I asked her: Is this still a problem for you?

I’m shy, she said. I’m just shy.

Should I have turned to her mother and suggested — a counselor? An academic evaluation? Should I have probed further? How do you feel in school, do you have some friends, is anybody bullying you?

Or should I have said: Lots of people are shy. It’s one of the healthy, normal styles of being human.

All of these responses, together, would have been correct. A child who is being bullied or bothered may be anxious about drawing attention to herself; a child who doesn’t ever talk in class may be holding back because some learning problem is getting in the way, making her self-conscious. So you do need to listen — especially to a child who talks less rather than more — and find ways to ask questions. Are you happy, anxious, afraid?

But shyness is also part of the great and glorious range of the human normal. Two years ago, Kathleen Merikangas, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health, and her colleagues published a study of 10,000 older children, ranging from 13 to 18 years old. “We found that about half of kids in America describe themselves as shy,” she told me.

Common though it may be, our schools — and our broader culture — do not always celebrate the reserved and retiring. “Children who are shy, who don’t raise their hand, who don’t talk in class, are really penalized in this society,” Dr. Merikangas said.

I have heard it said that temperament was invented by the first parent to have a second child — that’s when parents realize that children come wired with many of the determinants of disposition and personality. What worked with Baby 1 doesn’t necessarily work with Baby 2. The analysis of temperament has been a topic of discussion in pediatrics and psychology for decades.

“Temperament is the largely inborn set of behaviors that are the style with which a person functions, not to be confused with their motivation or their developmental status and abilities,” said Dr. William B. Carey, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of “Understanding Your Child’s Temperament.”

Shyness reflects a child’s place on the temperamental continuum, the part of it that involves dealing with new and unfamiliar circumstances. And starting a new school year may be hard on those who find new situations more difficult and more full of anxiety. What most children need is time to settle in, support from parents and teachers, and sometimes help making connections and participating in class.

If a child is not more comfortable after a month or so, parents should look at whether more help is needed, said Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Treatment usually involves cognitive behavioral strategies to help the child cope with anxiety.

All ranges of temperament have their uncomfortable, or even pathological, outer zones. Just as there are children whose rambunctious eagerness to participate makes trouble for them in school or signals the presence of other problems, there are children whose silence is a shout for help.

I’m struck by the parallels between the ways we discuss shyness and the ways we discuss impulsivity and hyperactivity. In both cases, there is concern about the risk of “pathologizing” children who are well within the range of normal and worry that we are too likely to medicate outliers. By this thinking, children who would once have been considered shy and quiet too often get antidepressants, just as children who would once have been considered lively and rambunctious too often get A.D.H.D. medications.

But the most important question is whether children are in distress. Dr. Merikangas’s study distinguished between the common trait of shyness and the psychiatric diagnosis of social phobia. Over all, about 5 percent of the adolescents in the study were severely restricted by social anxiety; they included some who described themselves as shy and some who did not. The authors questioned whether the debate about the “medicalization” of shyness might be obscuring the detection of the distinct signs of social phobia.

For parents who simply want to help a shy child cope with, for example, a brand new classroom full of brand new people, consider rehearsing, scripting encounters and interactions. “The best thing they can do is do a role play and behavioral rehearsal ahead of time,” said Steven Kurtz, a senior clinician at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. Parents should “plan on rewarding the bravery.”

But don’t take over. “The danger point is rescuing too soon, too often, too much, so the kids don’t develop coping mechanisms,” said Dr. Kurtz.

Cognitive behavioral therapy relies on “successive approximations,” in which children slowly close in on the behaviors they are hoping to achieve. In that spirit, a parent might arrange to meet another parent on the way to school, so a shy child can walk with another and bond. A teacher might look for the right partner to pair up with a shy child for cooperative activities in the classroom.

“Probably the worst thing to do is to say, ‘Don’t be shy. Don’t be quiet,’ ” Dr. Merikangas told me. This is not about trying to change the child’s temperament. It’s about respecting and honoring temperament and variation, and helping children navigate the world with their own instruments.

Minecraft, an Obsession and an Educational Tool

The New York Times

Luca Citrone, 8, and his sister Willow play Minecraft before they go to bed.Michael CitroneLuca Citrone, 8, and his sister Willow play Minecraft before they go to bed.

If you were to walk into my sister’s house in Los Angeles, you’d hear a bit of yelling from time to time. “Luca! Get off Minecraft! Luca, are you on Minecraft again? Luca! Enough with the Minecraft!”

Luca is my 8-year-old nephew. Like millions of other children his age, Luca is obsessed with the video game Minecraft. Actually, obsessed might be an understated way to explain a child’s idée fixe with the game. And my sister, whom you’ve probably guessed is the person doing all that yelling, is a typical parent of a typical Minecraft-playing child: she’s worried it might be rotting his brain.

For those who have never played Minecraft, it’s relatively simple. The game looks a bit crude because it doesn’t have realistic graphics. Instead, it’s built in 16-bit, a computer term that means the graphics look blocky, like giant, digital Lego pieces.

Unlike other video games, there are few if any instructions in Minecraft. Instead, like the name suggests, the goal of the game is to craft, or build, structures in these 16-bit worlds, and figuring things out on your own is a big part of it. And parents, it’s not terribly violent. Sure, you can kill a few zombies while playing in the game’s “survival mode.” But in its “creative mode,” Minecraft is about building, exploration, creativity and even collaboration.

The game was first demonstrated by Markus Persson, a Swedish video game programmer and designer known as Notch, in 2009 and released to the public in November 2011. Today, the game runs on various devices, including desktop computers, Google Android smartphones, Apple iOS and the Microsoft Xbox. There are thousands of mods, or modifications, for the game, that allow people to play in prebuilt worlds, like a replica of Paris (Eiffel Tower included) or an ancient Mayan civilization.

While parents — my sister included — might worry that all these pixels and the occasional zombie might be bad for children, a lot of experts say they shouldn’t fret.

Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.

Around the world, Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to speaking a new language, said Joel Levin, co-founder and education director at the company TeacherGaming. TeacherGaming runs MinecraftEdu, which is intended to help teachers use the game with students.

A history teacher in Australia set up “quest missions” where students can wander through and explore ancient worlds. An English-language teacher in Denmark told children they could play Minecraft collectively in the classroom but with one caveat: they were allowed to communicate both orally and through text only in English. A science teacher in California has set up experiments in Minecraft to teach students about gravity.

Mr. Levin said that in addition to classroom exercises, children were learning the digital skills they would need as they got older.

“Kids are getting into middle school and high school and having some ugly experiences on Facebook and other social networks without an understanding of how to interact with people online,” he said. “With Minecraft, they are developing that understanding at a very early age.”

While there are no known neuroscience studies of Minecraft’s effect on children’s brains, research has shown video games can have a positive impact on children.

A study by S.R.I. International, a Silicon Valley research group that specializes in technology, found that game-based play could raise cognitive learning for students by as much as 12 percent and improve hand-eye coordination, problem-solving ability and memory.

Games like Minecraft also encourage what researchers call “parallel play,” where children are engrossed in their game but are still connected through a server or are sharing the same screen. And children who play games could even become better doctors. No joke. Neuroscientists performed a study at Iowa State University that found that surgeons performed better, and were more accurate on the operating table, when they regularly played video games.

“Minecraft extends kids’ spatial reasoning skills, construction skills and understanding of planning,” said Eric Klopfer, a professor and the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scheller Teacher Education Program. “In many ways, it’s like a digital version of Lego.”

Professor Klopfer suggested that if parents were worried about the game, they should simply play it with their children. He said he set up a server in his house so his children’s friends could play together and he could monitor their behavior and then explain that some actions, even in virtual worlds, are unethical — like destroying someone’s Minecraft house, or calling them a bad name.

But Professor Klopfer warned that, as with anything, there was — probably to my nephew’s chagrin — such as thing as too much Minecraft.

“While the game is clearly good for kids, it doesn’t mean there should be no limits,” he said. “As with anything, I don’t want my kids to do any one thing for overly extended periods of time. Whether Legos or Minecraft; having limits is an important part their learning.”

Many children would happily ignore that little warning if their parents let them.

Last weekend, my sister saw Luca on his computer with what appeared to be Minecraft on the screen. “Luca, I told you, you can’t play Minecraft anymore,” she said.

“I’m not playing Minecraft, mama,” he replied. “I’m watching videos on YouTube of other people playing Minecraft.”

My Amygdala Ate My Homework! The adolescent brain is long on intellect but short on judgment

Rewire Me


My Amygdala Ate My HomeworkWhen I arrive at my job, several people run to the door to hug me. During each day, at least one person falls out of her chair, someone bursts into tears, and several people fail to complete their assignments. My co-workers drop food on the carpet, flip upside down into headstands, and make fart jokes. Half of them interrupt me with off-topic remarks, and the other half sit in sullen silence. Sometimes they pick the keys off our shared computers.

I wish I were kidding.

Any sane person who worked with people like these might quit. But in my world, this is not only normal but downright healthy. The people I work with are middle school students, and I am the guardian of minds and souls under construction.

The typical adolescent brain has plenty of power. Studies have demonstrated that most normally developing brains achieve intellectual maturity around age 15 or 16. Kids this age feel smart, hence the sassing back, the insufferable rolling of the eyes, and their confidence in their ideas, no matter how poor their actual judgment.While they can be unpredictable in their oddities, my students are also interesting, lively, and brilliant. My work is to accept them as they are, while also helping them grow into everything they can be.

Patience, emotional stability, and flexibility are essentials in my job, but a solid understanding of neuroscience is my sharpest tool. Neuroscientist JoAnn Deak refers to teachers as “neurosculptors” because everything we do—or fail to do—as educators has a long-term impact on our students’ brains.

I stretch my students as much as I can, because the more they do now, the more they will be able to do later in life. During these years, it is truly use it or lose it.

However, while Deak encourages me to feed their intellects, her work has also helped explain my students’ impulsivity and inconsistent decision making, enabling me to develop realistic expectations for their reactions. Now, when I start to utter that classic adult scold: “You should know better!” I check myself, and recognize: actually, they don’t. That’s why they need adults who care in all the right ways.

Mature brains make good decisions when three brain regions work together smoothly. The amygdala initiates a choice, signaling with caveman-like insistence that it is time to do something. It grunts at the cerebral cortex, the eager nerd in our brains, to generate plans and ideas for how to get that something done. Those signals are sorted by the frontal cortex, the bossy front-office executive, that part of our brain that makes the final call about which something is likely to work best—or which somethings seem like a great idea but really must be avoided at all costs.

The typical adolescent brain has plenty of power. Studies have demonstrated that most normally developing brains achieve intellectual maturity around age 15 or 16. Kids this age feel smart, hence the sassing back, the insufferable rolling of the eyes, and their confidence in their ideas, no matter how poor their actual judgment. Adolescents rightly enjoy their intellectual power, even as their ideas are flying off in all directions.

And this is where patience, flexibility, and emotional stability come in. We, the adults in the adolescents’ lives, have to impose judgment from the outside—yet without squashing all the learning, growth, and energy germinating within.However, the kids in my class (I must remind myself over and over) also have a newly empowered amygdala. The amygdala is a primal, deep-brain structure that cues aggression and fear, but is also crucial to the most basic sort of learning: fear conditioning. Recent MRI studies have demonstrated a swelling in the amygdala starting six months before puberty shows itself. Other studies find that the kids with the largest amygdalae argue more with their mothers. Again, I wish I were kidding.

Smart brain. Intense emotional learning. Only one problem: because the cortex develops from back to front, my students’ full-speed-ahead brains are operating without adequate judgment. The amygdala is shouting at the cortex, “DO something!” The cortex fires off lots of powerful ideas in response. But there is precious little activity in the front of the brain, where wisdom and judgment will one day reside. Hence their occasional brilliance and their equally frequent missteps.

And this is where patience, flexibility, and emotional stability come in. We, the adults in the adolescents’ lives, have to impose judgment from the outside—yet without squashing all the learning, growth, and energy germinating within. My kids need the highest expectations and the most enormous patience I can provide.

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Girl’s Suicide Points to Rise in Apps Used by Cyberbullies

The New York Times

A disturbing article about a middle school aged girl in Florida.  A good reminder to have conversations with your daughters about their use of social media, especially, Instagram and Snapchat.  All are invited to attend Middle School Technology Night on Monday, September 16 at 7 pm for more information on the topic.

Brian Blanco for The New York Times

A memorial for 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick has sprouted at the abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla., where she committed suicide.

Published: September 13, 2013 723 Comments

MIAMI — The clues were buried in her bedroom. Before leaving for school on Monday morning, Rebecca Ann Sedwick had hidden her schoolbooks under a pile of clothes and left her cellphone behind, a rare lapse for a 12-year-old girl.

Rebecca Sedwick

Lance Speere for The New York Times

Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, said she had no idea that her daughter, who died this week, was being cyberbullied by about 15 middle-school children, a problem that first arose and was addressed last year.

Inside her phone’s virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to “That Dead Girl” and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

In jumping, Rebecca became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications. Her suicide raises new questions about the proliferation and popularity of these applications and Web sites among children and the ability of parents to keep up with their children’s online relationships.

For more than a year, Rebecca, pretty and smart, was cyberbullied by a coterie of 15 middle-school children who urged her to kill herself, her mother said. The Polk County sheriff’s office is investigating the role of cyberbullying in the suicide and considering filing charges against the middle-school students who apparently barraged Rebecca with hostile text messages. Florida passed a law this year making it easier to bring felony charges in online bullying cases.

Rebecca was “absolutely terrorized on social media,” Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said at a news conference this week.

Along with her grief, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school. She closed down her daughter’s Facebook page and took her cellphone away. She changed her number. Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Ms. Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca’s social media footprint.

It all seemed to be working, she said. Rebecca appeared content at her new school as a seventh grader. She was gearing up to audition for chorus and was considering slipping into her cheerleading uniform once again. But unknown to her mother, Rebecca had recently signed on to new applications —, and Kik and Voxer — which kick-started the messaging and bullying once again.

“I had never even heard of them; I did go through her phone but didn’t even know,” said Ms. Norman, 42, who works in customer service. “I had no reason to even think that anything was going on. She was laughing and joking.”

Sheriff Judd said Rebecca had been using these messaging applications to send and receive texts and photographs. His office showed Ms. Norman the messages and photos, including one of Rebecca with razor blades on her arms and cuts on her body. The texts were full of hate, her mother said: “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly.”

One said, “Can u die please?” To which Rebecca responded, with a flash of resilience, “Nope but I can live.” Her family said the bullying began with a dispute over a boy Rebecca dated for a while. But Rebecca had stopped seeing him, they said.

Rebecca was not nearly as resilient as she was letting on. Not long before her death, she had clicked on questions online that explored suicide. “How many Advil do you have to take to die?”

In hindsight, Ms. Norman wonders whether Rebecca kept her distress from her family because she feared her mother might take away her cellphone again.

“Maybe she thought she could handle it on her own,” Ms. Norman said.

It is impossible to be certain what role the online abuse may have played in her death. But cyberbullying experts said cellphone messaging applications are proliferating so quickly that it is increasingly difficult for parents to keep pace with their children’s complex digital lives.

“It’s a whole new culture, and the thing is that as adults, we don’t know anything about it because it’s changing every single day,” said Denise Marzullo, the chief executive of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, who works with the schools there on bullying issues.

No sooner has a parent deciphered Facebook or Twitter or Instagram than his or her children have migrated to the latest frontier. “It’s all of these small ones where all this is happening,” Ms. Marzullo said.

In Britain, a number of suicides by young people have been linked to, and online petitions have been started there and here to make the site more responsive to bullying. The company ultimately responded this year by introducing an easy-to-see button to report bullying and saying it would hire more moderators.

“You hear about this all the time,” Ms. Norman said of cyberbullying. “I never, ever thought it would happen to me or my daughter.”

Questions have also been raised about whether Rebecca’s old school, Crystal Lake Middle School, did enough last year to help stop the bullying; some of it, including pushing and hitting, took place on school grounds. The same students also appear to be involved in sending out the hate-filled online messages away from school, something schools can also address.

Nancy Woolcock, the assistant superintendent in charge of antibullying programs for Polk County Schools, said the school received one bullying complaint from Rebecca and her mother in December about traditional bullying, not cyberbullying. After law enforcement investigated, Rebecca’s class schedule was changed. Ms. Woolcock said the school also has an extensive antibullying campaign and takes reports seriously.

But Ms. Norman said the school should have done more. Officials told her that Rebecca would receive an escort as she switched classes, but that did not happen, she said.

Rebecca never boarded her school bus on Monday morning. She made her way to the abandoned Cemex plant about 10 minutes away from her modest mobile home; the plant was a place she had used as a getaway a few times when she wanted to vanish. Somehow, she got past the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, which is now a memorial, with teddy bears, candles and balloons. She climbed a tower and then jumped.

“Don’t ignore your kids,” Ms. Norman said, “even if they seem fine.”

Lance Speere contributed reporting from Lakeland, Fla., and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.

Preventing Childhood Obesity: How To Help Kids Shed Weight By Changing Home Routines

The Huffington Post

Posted: 09/09/2013

Preventing Childhood Obesity

By: Christopher Wanjek,

Doctors may have found a way to simultaneously work on several major health problems facing U.S. children: obesity, too much TV, too little sleep and chaotic mealtimes. Maybe you can guess where this one is going.

A team of researchers in the United States and Canada has developed an approach to help low-income children lose weight by reducing the kids’ television viewing time, increasing their sleep time, and encouraging their families to eat dinner together at consistent times.

This is the first home-based intervention that has attempted to reduce obesity rates by changing household behavior, instead of focusing on diet or exercise, the researchers said. The study appears today (Sept. 9) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. [10 Ways to Promote Kids’ Healthy Eating Habits]

Health starts at home

Childhood obesity has more than doubled, and tripled among adolescents, over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 17 percent of U.S. children are obese. The problem is particularly acute among African Americans, Latinos, and children in low-income families.

While the underlying cause of obesity is obvious — more calories are consumed than expended — gaining excess weight is too easy, and losing weight is clearly difficult, or the obesity epidemic would have been solved by now, said Aaron Carroll, a pediatric obesity expert at Indiana University School of Medicine not associated with the new study.

A holistic lifestyle change might be a better way to approach obesity, Carroll said.

“Rather than drill down to a specific eating or exercise change, creating a healthier household may be a better way not only to improve weight, but overall physical and mental health as well,” Carroll wrote in an editorial accompanying they study in the journal.

Ongoing research has suggested that four household routines are associated with healthy weight for children: getting regular and adequate sleep; eating meals together as a family; limiting television viewing; and having no TV in the room where the child sleeps. A 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that preschool-age children in households with these four routines had a rate of obesity 40 percent lower than that of children whose homes had none of these routines.

Improving habits

Now, a team led by Dr. Elsie Taveras, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Jess Haines, of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, has successfully introduced these healthy habits in the homes of low-income families in the Boston area.

The team enrolled 121 families with overweight children, whose homes had TVs in the room where the children slept. Among them, 59 families were assigned to a control group – they received information via the mail over the next six months about healthy household habits. The other 62 families received in-home counseling about these healthy habits.

Children in the intervention group increased their sleep by a half hour per day, reduced their TV viewing by one hour per day, and decreased their body mass index (BMI) by 20 percent. Meanwhile, children in the control group saw a small decrease in sleep and a 20 percent increase in BMI.

The biggest limitation of this intervention approach, however, could be its expense. The researchers hired and trained four bilingual health educators, who conducted four visits and four phone calls to the families. On a nationwide scale, this could constitute a costly means to get children to lose weight.

Noting cost as one possible limitation, Sarah Anderson, associate professor of Epidemiology at The Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus, who was the lead author on the 2010 Pediatrics study identifying healthy home habits, remained optimistic.

“This study shows the potential that these household routines may have for childhood obesity prevention,” Anderson told LiveScience. “It is possible that household routines are most effective in promoting children’s healthy weight when combined with a warm and responsive style of parent-child interaction.”

The social support that came from the repeated, one-on-one contact between researchers and parents may be important, Anderson said.

The researchers noted that the intervention was not successful in getting parents to remove the TVs from the rooms where children slept. However, the researchers speculated that the reason was that, for 80 percent of the families, the children slept in the same room as their parents, and the parents were unwilling to surrender their own TV.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of a new novel, “Hey, Einstein!“, a comical nature-versus-nurture tale about raising clones of Albert Einstein in less-than-ideal settings. His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

In Lower Manhattan, parents teach kids about 9/11 every day


Jacoba Urist TODAY contributor
Jacoba Urist talks to son Wilson, 4, as they walk to preschool in Lower Manhattan.

Rebecca Davis / TODAY
Jacoba Urist talks to son Wilson, 4, as they walk to preschool in Lower Manhattan.

The first time our son Wilson asked about 9/11, he was 2. It was the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and we had to pass through an armed checkpoint in our Lower Manhattan neighborhood to get to our weekly Bubble Babies lesson. Why, he wanted to know on our way to swimming, was someone trying to hurt us?

Soon after, Wilson started noticing other things: the photos in our favorite local diner (first responders covered in ash), part of the burned chief’s car framed in the firehouse around the corner, the enormous cranes towering over his playground.

We try to answer his questions truthfully, but in a way that makes him feel safe. After all, how do you explain to a 4-year-old that Mommy and Daddy chose to raise him in a neighborhood that once saw so much destruction?

Jacoba and Wilson Urist pass the Freedom Tower while running errands in their neighborhood.

Rebecca Davis / TODAY
Jacoba and Wilson Urist pass the Freedom Tower while running errands in their neighborhood.

While the rest of the country marks September 11 in remembrances and tribute, for children living in Lower Manhattan, it’s a calendar day not unlike every other day.

That tragic morning and loss of life is something that families who live here grapple with all the time. And striking the right balance between honoring those who were lost, answering our children’s questions appropriately, and ensuring that they always feel safe in their daily lives is an ongoing challenge.

Kristin Bartlett is a Lower Manhattan pre-school teacher whose mother worked at the Pentagon for 30 years and was in her office the morning of September 11th, “only one corner away from the section that was hit.”

“I am very sensitive and extremely cautious about the issue of 9/11,” Bartlett says. “Especially when it comes to my students [who are] simply not equipped to make sense of such a complex and tragic event in our history,” no matter how bright they are or their proximity to Ground Zero.

Of her students who ask about it, more than anything else, the 4-year-olds want to know whether they are in danger of a similar attack. “I always use age-appropriate language and reassure the student of his or her own safety,” explains Bartlett. “I tell them our government works all day, every day, to make sure nothing like 9/11 will ever happen again.”

Elementary schools next to the Freedom Tower discuss September 11th with students, every year, in the first few weeks of school, tailoring their focus for each classroom, said Catherine Park, a mom of a kindergarten and fifth-grade student at PS 234 in Tribeca. It was one of the schools evacuated that morning, she says, so educators are quite attuned to students’ concerns about safety.

And according to Park, after they discuss September 11th, the teacher sends a note or email telling parents “how it went” and what kinds of questions students asked, so parents can continue the dialogue at home.

“You have to remember, for many of these kids,” Park points out, “Ground Zero was always this big construction site near their school and park. They don’t understand that there were two towers there and it wasn’t always a sad place.”

For that reason, Park said her daughter’s class read the children’s book “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers,” about the French aerialist, Philippe Petit, who in 1974 strode a tightrope for an hour between the World Trade Center Towers. The book opens like a fairy tale: “Once there were two towers side by side. They were each a quarter mile high…The tallest buildings in New York City.”

For Anna Grossman, director of The Hudson River Park Mothers Group, a social and support network for moms in Lower Manhattan, the 9/11 anniversary is about reflection and honoring those who were lost.

Every year around the 11th, Grossman says, she and her husband take their son, Julian, 9, and daughter, Ella, 4, to Ground Zero, to talk about the kind of “sadness that doesn’t really go away” and pay their respects to all the people who died. This past Sunday, she says, was a particularly peaceful family time— beginning with the trip to the memorial, a stop at the apartment where Julian was born (two blocks from the towers) so she could talk about her experience on that morning, and ending with a walk through their neighborhood along the river.

Wilson Urist at his local fire station, where part of the fire chief's charred truck from 9/11 hangs on the wall.

Jacoba Urist
Wilson Urist at his local fire station, where part of the fire chief’s charred truck from 9/11 hangs on the wall.

“We need to initiate certain conversations,” said Elissa Brown, PhD, professor of psychology at St. Johns University and director of the Child HEALTH Partnership, “no matter how difficult they might seem at the time.” After the terrorist attacks, Brown provided therapy in schools, offering mental health services for students, teachers, and administrators south of Canal Street.

“You also have to be receptive when children ask questions,” Brown tells adults. But don’t “jump right in” and “package the information,” she warns of the tendency many of us have when our kid is frightened about something. Take a step back and find out what your child knows, by asking open-ended questions: What have you heard about 9/11? What are you worried about?

For all families, 9/11 presents an opportunity to talk about the other side of the coin— the extraordinary flood of support and generosity for New York City and the country after the attacks.

Jay Winuk co-founded 9/11 Day Of Service, a non-profit movement to observe September 11 every year as a day of charitable work and doing good deeds, after he lost his younger brother Glen Winuk, a law partner and volunteer fire fighter who ran back into the burning buildings after evacuating his firm. In 2009, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act recognized September 11th as a national day of service, and the organization also provides “toolkits” for educators to use in schools.

“We have to show kids how people respond when the chips are down too, the incredible unity that exists after a disaster happens,” Winuk says.

The anniversary of 9/11 is a remarkable teaching moment between a parent and child, according to 9/11 Day of Service co-founder David Paine. You don’t have to stray far from your comfort zone to do a small act of kindness and show your kid the kind of resilience and compassion that was also part of that tragic moment. Clean out your closet for winter clothes donations, Paine suggests, or pick flowers for an elderly neighbor, or visit an animal shelter.

For our part, my son and I plan to bring cupcakes to the fire station around the corner from our apartment. In the evening, after supper, we’ll walk as a family over to Freedom Tower. It will be a special day of remembrance —and an ordinary one— in the neighborhood we call home.

Jacoba Urist is a business, health, and lifestyle reporter in NYC.