Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?

Student wellness is constantly in our thoughts at Sacred Heart.  The topic is especially compelling as independent schools, especially in the Northeast, tend to be pressure cookers as students vie for admissions to the best colleges, and as the parents of our students tend to be hard working over-achievers.  As a school, we feel compelled to have outstanding programs in so many different areas – academics, arts, athletics and service.  Many of our students then feel the need to be involved in and excel in many different areas, which then leads to stress.
We have also worked hard at Sacred Heart to ensure we are promoting balance for our students.  The unique mission of a Sacred Heart school gives us “permission” to concentrate on other activities that promote wellness – such as faith, service, fun and the ability for our girls to be themselves without worrying about how boys will react.  Like the school in the article, we’ve implemented nightly homework limits and have eliminated homework over vacations.  Health classes, advisory activities, arts, sports and physical education also promote balance with our girls.  Despite these many efforts, we know some girls still find our environment to be rather stressful.  Our hope is that our small community and nurturing faculty will help us recognize those who are feeling pressure.  Parents should contact us immediately if they feel their daughter is experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress.
Vicki Abeles, January 2, 2016

STUART SLAVIN, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, knows something about the impact of stress. After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably.

But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in cooperation with Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., a once-working-class city that is increasingly in Silicon Valley’s orbit. He had anonymously surveyed two-thirds of Irvington’s 2,100 students last spring, using two standard measures, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The results were stunning: 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” he told the school’s faculty at a meeting just before the fall semester began. “It’s unprecedented.” Worse, those alarming figures were probably an underestimation; some students had missed the survey while taking Advanced Placement exams.

What Dr. Slavin saw at Irvington is a microcosm of a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress. We think of this as a problem only of the urban and suburban elite, but in traveling the country to report on this issue, I have seen that this stress has a powerful effect on children across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life. Children living in poverty who aspire to college face the same daunting admissions arms race, as well as the burden of competing for scholarships, with less support than their privileged peers. Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.

“I’m talking about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are coming in with these conditions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who works with pediatric associations nationally. “I’m hearing this from my colleagues everywhere.”

What sets Irvington apart in a nation of unhealthy schools is that educators, parents and students there have chosen to start making a change. Teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. In fact,research supports limits on homework. Students have started a task force to promote healthy habits and balanced schedules. And for the past two years, school counselors have met one on one with every student at registration time to guide them toward a manageable course load.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” said one Irvington teacher, who has seen the problem worsen over her 16 years on the job.

A growing body of medical evidence suggests that long-term childhood stress is linked not only with a higher risk of adult depression and anxiety, but with poor physical health outcomes, as well. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, a continuing project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, shows that children who experience multiple traumas — including violence, abuse or a parent’s struggle with mental illness — are more likely than others to suffer heart disease, lung disease, cancer and shortened life spans as adults. Those are extreme hardships but a survey of the existing science in the 2013 Annual Review of Public Health suggested that the persistence of less severe stressors could similarly act as a prescription for sickness.

“Many of the health effects are apparent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our children,” says Richard Scheffler, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We will all pay the cost of treating them and suffer the loss of their productive contributions.”

Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believethat their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.

Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.

At Irvington, it’s too early to gauge the impact of new reforms, but educators see promising signs. Calls to school counselors to help students having emotional episodes in class have dropped from routine to nearly nonexistent. The A.P. class failure rate dropped by half. Irvington students continue to be accepted at respected colleges.

There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead. Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests. Communities across the country — like Gaithersburg, Md., Cadiz, Ky., and New York City — are already taking some of these steps. In place of the race for credentials, local teams are working to cultivate deep learning, integrity, purpose and personal connection. In place of high-stakes childhoods, they are choosing health.

The downside of no downtime for kids



Should parents sign kids up for weeks of camps or leave them to their own devices to fill their summer days? Experts say a mix of both is best. Photo by bsrdn/Flickr.
Is a summer packed with science and sports camps, reading assignments and math practice the only responsible choice?Have you failed if your fifth grader isn’t learning to code or build tools with 3D printers?

Should you be pushing your child out the door, directing them to find the nearest park on their own?

The answer to all of those questions is probably no, says Alvin Rosenfeld, author of “The Over-Scheduled Child” and perhaps the most quoted man in articles warning of the possible consequences of accounting for too many minutes of your child’s day.
(These consequences, by the way, can include depression, anxiety and a lack of creativity and problem solving skills.)

work-life-balance-badge“First, I’d ask myself what kind of adult you want your kid to grow up to be,” Rosenfeld said. “And then I’d ask how you get there. How do you balance academics, athletics and character?”

Most parents Rosenfeld encounters say developing a strong character is most important. “Unfortunately, actions don’t always follow aspirations in terms of saying character is most important,” he said.

And unscheduled time with family, but without goals or plans, is key to character development, Rosenfeld said. Those are the times children are more likely to wonder about the world and to ask questions.

“Families that play together stay together,” said Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service who co-chairs the board of the U.S. Play Coalition. Family play helps kids develop social skills like communication, “so when tougher situations come up, the fact that they’ve played together makes it so they can better communicate in those situations, too.”

And unplanned family time has the added benefit of helping parents and children learn more about each other. “So you know your parents, and your parents know you,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s an essential facet of emotional health. If you feel your parents know you, love you and care for you, life can be difficult, it can challenge you, throw you curves, but you’ll always have that recollection inside and feel beloved.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean evenings should be spent staring at each other across the dinner table, he said.

“If you’re interested, getting taught to play the saxophone, or ice hockey, or gymnastics is terrific,” he said. Just don’t fill all your time with it. “An increase in stress increases performance until you reach a tipping point — then there is a dramatic and total crash.”

Avoiding a ‘total crash’ means striking a balance

Few children get to experience the kind of summers idealized in movies — playing games and riding bikes with their friends in the neighborhood. Research shows that can mean weight gain and a loss of academic skills, especially for low-income children. A2007 study found one measure of weight increased up to twice as fast for some children during the summer when compared to weight gain during the school year. Other research concludes children can lose as much as two months of math and reading proficiency over the summer.

Summer programs can also be a place where kids who struggle to focus in traditional classrooms can flourish, according to Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

“These are kids told throughout the school year that they’re a problem, that they’re bad kids,” she said. “And so often, we see those kids excel and become leaders in a summer setting.”

But for every week of intensive activity or sleepaway camp, Dorothy Sluss said, children need three weeks of less-structured time.

Sluss is an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at James Madison University and president of the U.S. chapter of the International Play Association.

Children, young children especially, do need time to play and explore and, Sluss said. They need time to just do nothing.

“We may see sitting on a blanket in the yard, looking at the clouds as a waste of time,” she said. “But children view that as a time to wonder, to grow. That’s when they develop and have sensory stimulation.”

Hard and fast rules on numbers of activities or hours of free time aren’t necessary, Rosenfeld said. Parents should listen to their instincts.

“If you sense you’ve gone beyond the tipping point, cut back 5 percent, cut back one night a week, have a “no-activity day” twice a month,” he said. “You’ll feel you have to yell at your kids a little less and that you’re not in crazy zone anymore.”

Why I Don’t Want My Kids to Be Happy


Hours after my first child was born, I couldn’t sleep. I held the little bundle of adorableness in my arms and thought, As long as you are happy, nothing else matters. Flash-forward 17 years of parenting, and you know what? Happiness isn’t top of the list for my deepest wants for my kids. Somewhere along the road, I realized that my kids’ happiness is way overrated.

Every day, on Facebook and parenting message boards, I see my fellow moms complaining about how loads of homework and mean teachers are making their kids unhappy. Their kids are bored or stressed or under too much pressure. They aren’t happy, they worry. They need to be happy, they protest.

It seems as though parents nowadays equate happiness as a life devoid of boredom or dissatisfaction. Every activity children engage in, no matter how mundane, should be creatively constructed to engage and enlighten.

I get it.

You look at that little representative of all the best things about you rolled into huge eyes and a sweet messy smile, and you feel the urge to keep them happy at all costs.

You want to keep from them the agony of failure, the pain of rejection and the self-conscious awkwardness of not fitting in. You want your child to walk through the world believing they can do anything and be anyone and that they are special.

I get all that. I just disagree. Life insists you do all kinds of things that make you unhappy. I don’t want my kids to be happy. I want them to be battle-tested.

When kids are young, you create their whole world. You pick their friends, their clothing, their activities, their entertainment, their education, even their food. It’s easy to construct a perfect existence for them, filled with encouragement.

But that is not maintainable in the long run. At some point, the world gets hold of them, and there’s nothing a parent can do to protect them.

When I decided I was so terrific I should make more of me to populate this already overcrowded world, I figured I owed my kids a certain legacy of competence. I meet my responsibility with love, but I never lose sight of the fact that I am preparing them for something bigger than our relationship.

So, I don’t save them from the hurts of life. These little earthquakes feel huge at the time, but soon fade in importance. More times than not, my kids learn from those hurts, and they use the lesson to develop as people.

There are no lessons in happiness. People don’t grow from joy. The meat of life is in all those other emotions; fear, sadness, frustration. That’s where we do our growing — facing and learning how to navigate those feelings.

The best way for me to raise these people is to give them the tools to find their own way. I can’t follow my children through life clearing a path for them. But I can give them a machete and teach them how to clear their own path. Yes, I just suggested giving children weapons — it’s an analogy. That has been the tactic I’ve been following for the last 17 years.

I parent with love, but I parent with the day I can no longer parent in mind. In each ‘end of days’ moment my kids experience, we pick out the personal responsibility. We talk about our power, and finding the strength that only comes from failures. We talk about facing fears and find the opportunities within.

Parenting will always be a balancing act: Keeping our kids safe, keeping them moving forward and keeping them happy. To make that more doable for our family, I’ve given up on that last one. My kids aren’t always happy, and that’s OK. We embrace the pain together. Through each issue we face, they grow stronger and closer to becoming fully-functioning adults.

Nurturing Resilience: Reminding Ourselves What Kids Need

The Independent School Magazine Blog

We all agree resilience is a good thing. Essentially a synonym for pluck, grit, stick-to-itiveness, the ability to dust off one’s knees and get back on the horse or the bike or whatever threw you, resilience suggests positive adaptation, coming through a tough time, coping.

There are communities we point to as being particularly resilient — Sandy Hook, Connecticut, for example — and that’s the rub. To be resilient means a child has endured something horrific or, to a lesser degree, difficult. But there are opportunities that do not require suffering or loss or exquisite pain, and practicing the habit of resilience helps children learn to weather the storms that are an inevitable part of growing up.
The path can’t always be smooth; bumps and boulders help us remember that we are stronger than we know, more capable than we imagined. It’s hard to watch children struggle without jumping in to solve the problem.  But when we can avoid making that jump, we help them thrive. Here’s my own list of reminders to encourage resilience in our kids and in myself!
  1. Believe kids are capable and can manage without swooping in to “save” them. Communicate that you believe in her ability to solve a problem.  Answer when asked for help; don’t offer advice for what hasn’t been asked.
  2. Shut up and listen. Then ask: Do you want me to do something? If the answer is no, don’t do anything. Invoke the 24-hour rule before reacting. (As my mother used to say, things often really do look better in the morning.)
  3. In books and movies that you and your children or students share, talk about resilience — how did that character cope?  What would you do?  Invite problem solving about practical dilemmas into daily conversations.
  4. Let consequences run their course. As a parent, don’t try to soften the penalty for a daughter’s late assignment. As a teacher, be firm, fair, friendly and consistent applying consequences. Never shame a child for work left incomplete or some other task left undone.
  5. Take lots of opportunities to talk about empathy, saying, “How would you feel if?”
  6. Make the adage that there are at least two sides to every story a mantra in your home and classroom.
  7. Consistently remind children in your care that even grown-ups make mistakes: we can learn from things that didn’t go so well — learn what to do the next time, learn about ourselves, learn that the sun doesn’t fall out of the sky when we mess up. Model making mistakes so that your students or progeny can see your swift, un-martyr-like recovery.
  8. Kids need to dump: A college child calls, miserable; the parents are frantic — the next night Mom calls, worried, fretful — the child is fine. The storm has passed everywhere but at home as the parents nursed their distress. It is hard to remember that late at night.
  9. Things do blow over if we let them — it’s an art to know when to intervene and when not to.
  10. It’s painful for us to bear witness — we don’t like the feeling of “not doing anything,” but by allowing a child to take the time to work things out on her own, we are doing plenty.
  11. Champion risk taking as long as failure/consequences are neither life-threatening nor permanent.
  12. Kids feel good about what they can DO — chores, taking responsibility at home. They feel competent and needed doing laundry, walking the dog, cooking. Don’t let them off the hook.
  13. As much as I want to swoop in and make my son practice his math facts, I must remind myself that HE is the one who must do the work.  It doesn’t help him develop resilience if I am more concerned about his homework than he is.  When I step back, I help him take charge.  If I do things for him, I cut him off at the knees.
  14. We can’t stand by our children’s side and give them everything — it encourages helplessness, at best, and entitlement, at worst. Our superb schools abound in opportunity. Encourage, suggest, wonder, but allow the student to select what activities to pursue. Resist prescribing. Some things will not go well or be enjoyable — make a contract ahead of time about how long a commitment must be sustained.
  15. From time to time, when the stakes are not enormously high, we must allow students to falter while we stay quiet, watching and listening and breathing — we can’t save them from themselves or their actions; they need to find out how consequences work for themselves — we can’t give them a heads-up about every possibility.
  16. Limitations (like those found in music, poetry) can offer opportunities for stretching boundaries and overcoming obstacles. In structure, there is often freedom — limitations encourage problem-solving and creativity. Remind students that the struggle itself has value
  17. You can’t be a hero unless you go beyond yourself.
  18. Creativity, growth mindset, self-care, purpose, relationship are all components that help children cultivate resilience.  For more about this, check out Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.
Resilience isn’t a race; we all make progress over the course of our lives.  When we cultivate resilience in ourselves, we help our students and children do the same.  Celebrate success but do not fear failure. It’s not the mistake that matters; it’s what we learn from it as we move forward that counts.

Ann V. Klotz is head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the founder of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls.  You can read her blog on the Huffington Post or follow her on Twitter, @AnnKlotz.

Overindulgent Parents May Breed Narcissistic Children


Kids who were told they were better than others came to believe it, researchers report

Overindulgent Parents May Breed Narcissistic Children

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, March 9, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Kids who think too highly of themselves likely developed their narcissism because their parents put them on a pedestal and doled out unearned praise, a new study claims.

Parents who “overvalue” their children — believing they are “God’s gift to man” — tend to raise youngsters with an overblown sense of their own superiority, researchers report in the March 9 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It comes pretty naturally,” said senior study author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. “Most parents think their children are special, and deserve better treatment. But when our children receive special treatment, they become narcissistic and come to believe they deserve more and are superior to others.”

On the other hand, simple parental warmth can provide a child with an appropriate level of self-esteem, but does not lead to narcissism, the researchers found.

“It’s good to be a warm parent and a loving parent, but it’s not OK to treat your children as if they are better than others,” Bushman concluded. “Everyone we meet is better than us at something, and the fact that we’re all human beings makes us equally valuable.”

In the study, researchers evaluated 565 children aged 7 to 11 from middle-class neighborhoods in the Netherlands, along with their parents.

Parents and children answered a series of questions designed to assess a child’s narcissism and self-esteem, as well as a parent’s warmth and overvaluation of their child. Researchers administered the questionnaires four times over a period of 18 months.

The research team found that parents who overvalued their children — reflected in statements such as “my child is more special than other children” — did end up with children who were overly convinced of their own importance.

“I honestly believe one of the most dangerous beliefs that a person can have is that they are [more] superior than others,” Bushman said. “When people think they are superior to others, they behave very badly. It’s much better to treat everybody like we are all part of the human family, and are all worthy of respect.”

However, parents who offered simple warmth — reflected in statements such as “I let my child know I love him/her” — raised kids who had good self-esteem but a more realistic understanding of their place in the world.

“Warmth doesn’t produce narcissism,” Bushman said. “It produces self-esteem, without the egotistical part.”

Interestingly, the researchers found no link between child narcissism and a lack of parental warmth. That’s inconsistent with what psychology experts have long believed, which is that children who have cold parents put themselves on a pedestal to try and obtain from others the approval they didn’t find at home.

Although this study only showed an association between parents putting a child on a pedestal and that child being narcissistic, Bushman said the study shows how parents do their children a disservice by providing too much praise.

“In America, we have it all backward. We assume if we boost our child’s self-esteem, they’ll behave well. We assume self-esteem is the panacea for every ill,” he said. “Rather than boost self-esteem and hope our kids act well, we should wait for good behavior and then give them a pat on the back for that.”

Parents should support their children and praise even failed efforts, but they must make their praise appropriate to the situation, Bushman said.

“Don’t issue blanket praise that’s not contingent on behavior,” he said. “Praise them for trying hard, and encourage them to persist and not give up in the face of failure. But make praise realistic.”

James Garbarino, senior faculty fellow at the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago, warned that parents who treat their children as though they walk on water are setting them up to sink like stones later in life.

“It’s a good investment to temper narcissism, because otherwise you are setting your kids up for a big fall later in life,” Garbarino said. “Eventually, life shows you that you’re not that special. You’ve heard the saying, ‘Time heals all wounds?’ In this case, ‘Time wounds all heels.’ ”

However, Garbarino also pointed out that these findings probably only apply to middle-class kids. Children from poor or lower-class families also can grow up to be narcissistic, but the cause may be different for them.

“Those kids did not end up in this study, so you have to be careful about interpreting it,” he said.

More information

For more on narcissistic personality disorder, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Brad Bushman, Ph.D., professor, communication and psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; James Garbarino, Ph.D., senior faculty fellow, Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University, Chicago; March 9, 2015, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online

Sleeping Near A Smartphone Can Disturb A Child’s Rest


Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

The last thing my 11-year-old does before she goes to sleep is put her iPod on the nightstand. And that could mean less sleep for her, researchers say.

There’s plenty of evidence that children who have televisions in their rooms get less sleep. This is one of the first studies to look at whether having a small screen like an iPod or smartphone in the room also affects rest.

The study, which was published Monday in Pediatrics, looked at 2,048 racially diverse fourth-graders and seventh-graders who were participating in a study on childhood obesity in Massachusetts. Lack of sleep is considered a risk factor for obesity, so the children were asked how long they slept and if they felt they needed more sleep.

They also were asked how often they slept with an iPod, smartphone or cellphone in their bed or next to the bed. More than half of the children, 57 percent, said they slept near a small screen.

Those children reported getting 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep on weekdays, compared to children who didn’t have the devices in the bedroom. Those children were also more likely to say they felt like they hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

The study also looked at TVs in the bedroom and found that children who slept in a room with a TV reported 18 fewer minutes of sleep than those without a TV, on par with other studies. And the big screens were even more common than the small screens — three-quarters of the children said they had a TV in their room. But they were less likely to feel like they missed out on sleep than the kids with small screens.

With both the TVs and the small screens, children went to sleep later, the researchers say. The small-screen sleepers hit the hay 37 minutes later than their screenless peers, and TV-watchers went to bed 31 minutes later. All the children were getting up at the same time because they had to get off to school.

And here’s one more wrinkle: Children who said they played video games or watched DVDs during the day also said they felt less rested. But the negative impact was much smaller than for small screens or TVs in the bedroom.

This study wasn’t designed in a way that could figure out what was causing the sleep loss and tiredness — whether the kids were actually using the devices thus exposing themselves to light and stimulating content, say, or whether getting calls or alerts during the night interrupted sleep.

My guess is that it’s all of the above. And though I don’t think my sixth-grader is texting at midnight, I’ve been worried enough about the disruptive potential of the bedside device that this Christmas she got an old-school bit of technology — a clock radio. That iPod is outta there.

Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning,

A study by Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay S. Provan, Hannah R. Snyder, and Yuko Munakata 

Families often return to school reporting with a wistful, almost guilty pleasure that they achieved something rare and treasured during the holidays – down time. A new study that investigates the relationship between children’s time use and their developing cognition gives evidence-based encouragement to continue to offer less-structured time for children throughout the school year, as well. The study by University of Colorado researchers finds significant correlation between children who have some time to self-direct their activities and those with relatively higher executive functioning. This finding has meaning for families, and it goes some distance toward addressing parents’ questions about the optimal balance among school time, scheduled out-of-school time, and time for things like imaginative play, choosing a book and reading it on one’s own, or building a fort. Results showed that when children have more opportunities to choose what they will do and when, their capacity for self-direction increases. Educators, too, have an interest in steadying the scaffolding around the development of self-direction as it in turn correlates strongly to increased school readiness and academic performance. The results of this quiet yet complex study support thoughtful choices by parents and teachers.

Complete findings

Elizabeth Morley, The Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto, Canada

Simple Student Routines for Back-to-School Success

NY Times Motherlode blog

CreditJessica Lahey

In my last column, I wrote about simple solutions for back-to-school supplies, and a rollicking debate ensued in the comments section about the merits of the binder system, paper versus digital systems, and the perception that parents impose undue complexity on their kids these days. The one thing it seems we can all agree upon, however, is that the plan kids implement to keep their schoolwork in order is far more important than the tools they use.

In my former middle school, (and in my own home) we established a predictable, weekly routine that set the tone for the kids’ organizational success. Once a week, we put time aside for locker and binder cleaning, and made sure parents knew that on Wednesdays, being on time meant being early. Every Wednesday morning before homeroom, students were required to empty their lockers of crumpled loose papers, figure out what to recycle and what to keep, and ferret out the source of the fruit flies hovering over their locker.

Once locker clean-out was complete, younger students also got weekly binder checks to support their efforts to stay organized. This weekly routine offered a great opportunity to show students that filing their papers and notes in the proper section of the proper binder can save them so much time and angst later on. I can’t tell you how many “lost” assignments were recovered in the wreckage of backpacks and binders on Wednesday mornings. This routine is an essential part of teaching kids about planning and managing their work and their materials, because if we are patient with their small failures and missteps, the organization of things can evolve into the organization of thoughts.

By the time these students graduate to eighth grade, locker and binder checks have become little more than a weekly formality, but for sixth graders who are just learning how to transition from one classroom, one desk, and one teacher to a locker, seven classrooms, and seven teachers, it is a vital part of their education.

Ana Homayoun, a student organization expert and founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, agrees. She offered further advice in an email:

The weekly regroup is also a great time to plan out their goals, reflect on what went well the previous week, and what they would like to do differently in the upcoming week. By creating a weekly opportunity for reflection, we can help students think through and solidify habits.

I can already hear the murmurs of concern about the time sink and authoritarian tone inherent in this weekly routine. So, for a prophylactic rejoinder, I turn to a commenter from last week,Amanda113:

I went to a highly competitive private school, and they insisted on the binder method for each class. In fact, our teachers would do random “binder checks” to make sure they were organized and complete. Was it authoritarian? Absolutely. But it was such a great organizing system, and it prepared me well for college and law school. I kept some of those binders as a keepsake, and I still marvel at their organization.

Another commenter was kind enough to provide my next bit of advice. In order to save students’ backs from strain and brains from chaos, they need to have a place to file papers that are no longer essential to daily work, but still needed for future reference.Anonymous wrote:

I teach 6th and 8th grade, and every Friday I take class time to pitch stuff. I also have a plastic crate with hanging files in my classroom — a file for each student — that’s where I have them keep the work I would like them to save rather than lug it around with them. … I also have a shelf for each class where they can leave textbooks or workbooks that they may not need every single day. The amount of THINGS we ask students to keep track of is pretty ridiculous. It seems like we’re teaching them to be organized, but we’re not. We’re not helping them see what can be tossed, what is worth saving and how to save it.

The most important routines we can give kids as the summer fades into fall, however, are those around family time and sleep. Postponed bedtimes and chaotic breakfasts set the tone for insufficient sleep and bad moods, and to prevent these disasters, Ms. Homayoun recommends that parents engage in preventive medicine:

Create end-of-day routines to make the mornings start off happier. Remember those mornings when kids lost their shoe, were tracking down their homework, and spilled breakfast on their shirt on the way out the door? Morning madness can’t be avoided BUT it can be tamed. With young kids, make a game and set a timer for ten-fifteen minutes at the end of every evening where they work to put their backpack by the door ready to go with completed homework inside, and anything else that can be completed in the evening and may make your morning easier.

I conclude with the most important routine of all, one that sets the stage for kids’ emotional, physical, mental and academic well-being: sleep. I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: Kids need more sleepthan they are getting. According to the Centers for Disease Control, preschoolers need eleven to twelve hours, elementary school kids need at least ten, and adolescents need nine to ten hours.

In order to protect those vital hours of sleep, parents may just have to step up and take a hard line on bedtime. I’ll let Ms. Homayoun take the hit and serve as the unpopular messenger on this bit of advice while I hide behind her and nod my head vigorously.

First, take all phones (ideally, all technology) out of the bedroom, and have them go in a digital box after a certain hour (for those kids who insist their phone is their alarm clock, get them a fun alarm clock for their bedside). Students often are up later than their parents realize answering texts, sending Snapchat messages, and perusing Instagram.

Speaking of technology, I have purposefully avoided an important aspect of the discussion about supplies and organization — the shift toward a paperless classroom. I hope to cover the organizational and educational implications of this trend in another column, but as most schools still rely on paper and pencils as their default technology, I’m going to have to live with my Luddite label for a while longer.

Please, comment or email your questions and suggestions for this year’s Parent-Teacher Conference columns, because we truly want this column to be a partnership; a place for you to ask questions and find answers about the confluence of education and parenting.

Fitness May Boost Kids’ Brainpower

Study found fitter kids had different white matter, which helps brain regions communicate with each other

Fitness May Boost Kids' Brainpower

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 19, 2014 (HealthDay News) — Exercise and brainpower in children may not seem closely related, but a small new study hints that fitness may supercharge kids’ minds.

The finding doesn’t prove that fitness actually makes children smarter, but it provides support for the idea, the researchers said.

“Our work suggests that aerobically fit and physically fit children have improved brain health and superior cognitive [thinking] skills than their less-fit peers,” said study author Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Hopefully, these findings will reinforce the importance of aerobic fitness during development and lead to additional physical activity opportunities in and out of the school environment.”

The researchers launched their study to gain more insight into the connections between fitness and the brain in children. Other research has connected higher levels of fitness to better attention, memory and academic skills, Chaddock-Heyman said.

And two recent studies found that fit kids are more likely to have better language skills and to do better on standardized tests for math and reading.

But there are still mysteries. While moderate exercise boosts brainpower for a few hours — making it a good idea to work out before a test — it’s not clear how fitness affects the brain in the long term, said Bonita Marks, director of the Exercise Science Teaching Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The chronic impact is less certain and, for health, really the key for future research and health management,” she added.

The new study didn’t examine any thinking skills, but instead looked only at the brain’s “white matter,” which helps different brain regions communicate with each other. The researchers scanned the brains of 24 kids aged 9 and 10, and found that white matter was different in the fitter kids, potentially a sign of better-connected brains.

Higher levels of fitness may boost blood flow, increase the size of certain brain areas and improve the structure of white matter, Chaddock-Heyman said.

What do the findings mean in the big picture?

It’s hard to know for sure. Megan Herting, a postdoctoral fellow with the division of research on Children, Youth, and Families at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, pointed out that the kids with lower fitness levels also weighed more, “so it is unclear if it is actually fitness or ‘fatness’ that may be affecting the brain. “Studies show that individuals with obesity have different brains compared to their healthier-weight peers,” she said.

As for the stereotype of the 99-pound weakling nerd, Herting suggested it may be time for a rethink. “These findings do challenge that if you are aerobically fit, you are likely to be dumb. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, we were made to move. So rather than fitness being ‘good’ for the brain and cognition, it is feasible that being sedentary may be ‘bad.'”

The researchers are now working on a study that assigns some kids to take part in exercise programs to see what happens to their brains over time when compared to other kids, Chaddock-Heyman said.

The study appears in the August issue of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

More information

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SOURCES: Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher, department of psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Bonita Marks, Ph.D., professor, exercise physiology, and director, Exercise Science Teaching Lab, department of exercise and sport science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Megan Herting, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, division of research on children, youth and families, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles; August 2014 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Back To School – Helping Kids Transition

Back to School

Whether their summer was jam-packed with activities or filled with complaints about being bored with nothing to do, kids often have a tough time making the back-to-school transition.

Battling the Butterflies

As with any new or potentially unsettling situation — like starting school for the first time or entering a new grade or new school — allow kids time to adjust. Remind them that everyone feels a little nervous about the first day of school and that it will all become an everyday routine in no time.

Emphasize the positive things about going back to school, such as hanging out with old friends, meeting new classmates, buying cool school supplies, getting involved in sports and other activities, and showing off the new duds (or snazzy accessories if your child has to wear a uniform).

It’s also important to talk to kids about what worries them and offer reassurance: Are they afraid they won’t make new friends or get along with their teachers? Is the thought of schoolwork stressing them out? Are they worried about the bully from last year?

Consider adjusting your own schedule to make the transition smoother. If possible, it’s especially beneficial for parents to be home at the end of the school day for the first week. But many working moms and dads just don’t have that flexibility. Instead, try to arrange your evenings so you can give kids as much time as they need, especially during those first few days.

If your child is starting a new school, contact the school before the first day to arrange a visit. And ask if your child can be paired up with another student, or “buddy,” and if you can be connected with other new parents. This will help both of you with the adjustment to new people and surroundings. Some schools give kids maps to use until things become more familiar.

To help ease back-to-school butterflies, try to transition kids into a consistent school-night routine a few weeks before school starts. Also make sure that they:

  • get enough sleep (establish a reasonable bedtime so that they’ll be well-rested and ready to learn in the morning)
  • eat a healthy breakfast (they’re more alert and do better in school if they eat a good breakfast every day)
  • write down the need-to-know info to help them remember details such as their locker combination, what time classes and lunch start and end, their homeroom and classroom numbers, teachers’ and/or bus drivers’ names, etc.
  • use a wall calendar or personal planner to record when assignments are due, tests will be given, extracurricular practices and rehearsals will be held, etc.
  • have them organize and set out what they need the night before (homework and books should be put in their backpacks by the door and clothes should be laid out in their bedrooms)

Although it’s normal to be anxious in any new situation, a few kids develop real physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, associated with the start of school. If you’re concerned that your child’s worries go beyond the normal back-to-school jitters, speak with your child’s doctor, teacher, or school counselor.

Back-to-School To-Do’s

Parents themselves can be a little nervous about the first day of school, especially if they’re seeing their little one off for the first time or if their child will be attending a new school.

To help make going to school a little easier on everyone, here’s a handy checklist:

What to wear, bring, and eat:

  • Does the school have a dress code? Are there certain things students can’t wear?
  • Will kids need a change of clothes for PE or art class?
  • Do your kids have a safe backpack that’s lightweight, with two wide, padded shoulder straps, a waist belt, a padded back, and multiple compartments?
  • Do kids know not to overload their backpacks and to stow them safely at home and school?
  • Will your kids buy lunch at school or bring it from home? If they buy a school lunch, how much will it cost per day or per week? Do you have a weekly or monthly menu of what will be served?
  • Have you stocked up on all of the necessary school supplies? (Letting kids pick out a new lunchbox and a set of pens, pencils, binders, etc., helps get them geared up for going back to school.)

Medical issues:

  • Have your kids received all necessary immunizations?
  • Have you filled out any forms that the school has sent home, such as emergency contact and health information forms?
  • Do the school nurse and teachers know about any medical conditions your child may have, particularly food allergies, asthma, diabetes, and any other conditions that may need to be managed during the school day?
  • Have you made arrangements with the school nurse to administer any medications your child might need?
  • Do the teachers know about any conditions that may affect how your child learns? For example, kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be seated in the front of the room, and a child with vision problems should sit near the board.

Transportation and safety:

  • Do you know what time school starts and how your kids will get there?
  • If they’re riding the bus, do you know where the bus stop is and what time they’ll be picked up and dropped off?
  • Do you know where the school’s designated drop-off and pick-up area is?
  • Are there any regulations on bicycles or other vehicles, such as scooters?
  • Have you gone over traffic safety information, stressing the importance of crossing at the crosswalk (never between parked cars or in front of the school bus), waiting for the bus to stop before approaching it, and understanding traffic signals and signs?
  • If your child walks or bikes to school, have you mapped out a safe route? Does your child understand that it’s never OK to accept rides, candy, or any other type of invitation from strangers?

What About After School?

Figuring out where kids will go after school can be a challenge, especially if both parents work. Depending on a child’s age and maturity, you may need to arrange for after-school transportation and care.

It’s important for younger kids and preteens to have some sort of supervision from a responsible adult. If you can’t be there as soon as school’s out, ask a reliable, responsible relative, friend, or neighbor to help out. If they’re to be picked up after school, make sure your kids know where to meet you or another caregiver.

Although it might seem like kids who are approaching adolescence are becoming mature enough to start watching themselves after school, even kids as old as 11 or 12 may not be ready to be left alone.

If your kids or teens are home alone in the afternoons, it’s important to establish clear rules:

  • Set a time when they’re expected to arrive home from school.
  • Have them check in with you or a neighbor as soon as they get home.
  • Specify who, if anyone at all, is allowed in your home when you’re not there.
  • Make sure they know to never open the door for strangers.
  • Make sure they know what to do in an emergency.

To ensure that kids are safe and entertained after school, look into after-school programs. Some are run by private businesses, others are organized by the schools themselves, places of worship, police athletic leagues, YMCAs, community and youth centers, and parks and recreation departments.

Getting involved in after-school activities:

  • offers kids a productive alternative to watching TV or playing video games
  • provides some adult supervision when parents can’t be around after school
  • helps develop kids’ interests and talents
  • introduces kids to new people and helps them develop their social skills
  • gives kids a feeling of involvement
  • keeps kids out of trouble

Be sure to look into the child-staff ratio at any after-school program (in other words, make sure that there are enough adults per child) and that the facilities are safe, indoors and out. And kids should know when and who will pick them up when school lets out and when the after-school program ends.

Also, make sure after-school commitments allow kids enough time to complete school assignments. Keep an eye on their schedules to make sure there’s enough time for both schoolwork and home life.

Helping Homework

Love it or hate it, homework is a very important part of school. To help kids get back into the scholastic swing of things:

  • Make sure there’s a quiet place that’s free of distractions to do homework.
  • Don’t let kids watch TV when doing homework or studying. Set rules for when homework and studying need to be done, and when the TV can be turned on and should be turned off. The less TV, the better, especially on school nights.
  • If your kids are involved in social media, be sure to limit the time spent on these activities during homework time.
  • Keep text messaging to a minimum to avoid frequent interruptions.
  • Never do their homework or projects yourself. Instead, make it clear that you’re always available to help or answer any questions.
  • Review homework assignments nightly, not necessarily to check up, but to make sure they understand everything.

Encourage kids to:

  • develop good work habits from the get-go, like taking notes, writing down assignments, and turning in homework on time
  • take their time with schoolwork
  • ask the teacher if they don’t understand something

To ensure kids get the most out of school, maintain an open channel of communication with the teachers by e-mailing or talking with them throughout the school year to discuss your kids’ academic strengths as well as weaknesses.

Most of all, whether it’s the first day of school or the last, make sure your kids know you’re there to listen to their feelings and concerns, and that you don’t expect perfection — only that they try their best.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013