Tag Archives: teaching

Kids will do well…

“Kids will do well, if they can.”  This is a quote from Dr. Ross Greene, an American psychologist.  He believes that “Kids will do well if they want to” is a philosophy that is held by many, but he says it is wrong.  Dead wrong.  Think about it.  He’s right.  It makes so much sense.   He talks about rewarding kids for desired behaviour, and punishing undesired behaviour and how that method is based on the assumption that kids don’t want to do well, so therefore we need to make them want to by motivating them with positive and negative reinforcements.  When you consider that kids do well if they can, you then realize you need only to figure out what is getting in their way and work to remove those ba.

Obviously it’s not simple.  But it IS sensible.  At least from my perspective.  And we are living it.  Berrik struggled in a system that seems to be set up with the philosophy that kids will do well if they want to.  He was absolutely rewarded for desired behaviour (the very few times he exhibited the desired behaviour) and was regularly punished for undesirable behaviour.  There was many a conversation between myself and his teachers about medication – because medication would help him fit the system, ultimately.  (EDIT: Please note that I am not anti-medication to treat symptoms of ADHD (or anything else for that matter).  In our situation at that time, I didn’t feel like it was the best solution for Berrik and I was concerned that it was viewed as the ‘only solution’.  We each are living our experiences and those who have used medication as one of the strategies to help their child do well are doing what we are all doing – trying to allow our children to do well.) There were just as many conversations about reward systems, and removing of privileges. And I say this with no negative feelings towards the teachers. With the exception of one, Berrik’s teachers truly seemed to want to help Berrik achieve success. But with many many kids per class and extremely limited resources, it seemed the only way was to make the kids fit the system rather than have the system fit the kids.

Enter private school designed for kids who do not fit the system.  A school designed to allow the system to fit the kids.  A school where every single person from the Board to the school admin believe that the system should fit the kid, and that kids will do well if they can.  In Berrik’s case, he needs a little extra support to keep him on task.  He was speech delayed as a toddler and this still impacts him as well.  His developmental coordination disorder makes things like writing more challenging.  So, he works with the speech language pathologist weekly.  He works with the OT twice per week.  And his teachers are making accommodations that make it easier for him to do well.  Not surprisingly he is doing exceptionally well.  Because kids will do well if they can.

 

I was at the school’s annual AGM listening to one of the OTs and the family counsellor present about a new program that is being piloted this year.  They referenced Dr. Greene’s quote.  And they talked about developmental age vs. chronological age.  It really resonated with me and if I needed one more reason to know that I have my boy in the correct school for him, this was it.  Think about it.  Chronological age is a pretty arbitrary thing to use to determine things like school grade, ability to drive, ability to drink or smoke marijuana, etc. etc.   Think about the kids you know and all the different phases and stages of development.  Even amoung my own three kids, their developmental ages vs. chronological ages have varied by quite a bit.  My kids’ friends vary dramatically as well.  Take any handful of 12 year olds (or 15 year olds, or 3 year olds) and compare their developmental age.  Some are incredibly mature in some areas of their lives, and some are developmentally younger. McKenna didn’t walk until 19 months.  She never crawled. Her physical development was on the edge of what would be considered ‘normal’ and she was way behind her peers.  Wasn’t much we could do about it, so we just let it be. She’s a strong runner and a competitive dancer now.  Development happens when it happens and while it should progress, the rate at which it progresses varies and shouldn’t be labelled or used as a predictor of future ability.  What is important to note as well, is that kids may be developmentally more mature in one area of development and not in others.  Dr. Greene talks about this as well. If we pay attention to developmental age and give kids what they can handle based where they are developmentally, they will do well.  It’s not unlike giving a first year resident surgeon an incredibly complex surgery on her first case.  The outcome likely won’t be all that good.  Why are we surprised when we ask kids to perform tasks beyond their developmental ability and it doesn’t go well?  It often results in behaviors that we see as negative.  But actually it’s quite normal and the kid is not the problem.

So the next time you see a kid (or your own kid) behaving in a way that isn’t meeting your expectations, think about your expectations. Are they developmentally appropriate?  Stop comparing your kids to their peers.  Its not helpful or useful.  Meet kids where they are at, and they will do well. Because kids will do well if they can.

September is the new New Year

I often feel like September is more of a ‘new year’ than January, and this year I feel it more acutely than ever.  It’s the usual ‘new’ beginnings that come with the school year starting – it’s my oldest’s last first day of Junior High, my middle child’s first first day of Junior High, the beginning of dance season (that never really ended) and the beginning of choir season, karate, basketball, piano, which with the exception of piano, means the beginning of chauffeur season for me.   Its also back to seeing my dance mom friends a bit more regularly, and getting back to curling in one short month so I can see my curling friends weekly all winter – I saw them two times from end of curling season in March until now, so believe me when I say I am looking forward to curling season!

This year feels different than most because we are starting (yet another) new chapter with Berrik.  He is headed back to school.  Unexpectedly a spot opened up in a small private school, and luckily Berrik was chosen to fill that spot.  If you have a child with learning disabilities in a classroom of 27 kids (or maybe even if you have a neurotypical child in a classroom with 27 kids) you’ll appreciate my optimism and excitement when I tell you his class this year will have 10 children with one teacher and one teacher assistant.

We had the opportunity to meet with Berrik’s teachers and tour his classroom this past week.  Apparently this is something that all kids at the school have the opportunity to do. We had a scheduled time and it was just Berrik and I in the classroom.  We had the chance to really talk about Berrik and how he learns best.  Berrik got to hear about what a typical school day will look like, he got to sit in his desk, and check out some of the classroom ‘fun stuff’.   The school OT dropped by to meet Berrik and say hi.  She spent a bit of time chatting with him.  While I was talking with her, the school principal came by the classroom.  She was wearing a dress, but she sat right down on the floor anyways to look at the machine Berrik was building with K’nex.  I had met her previously, so she didn’t even speak to me.  She was clearly there for Berrik.  Any doubts or fears I may have had disappeared.

These people really seem to get it.  They get how important it is to have parents’ input.  They get how developing a strong relationship with the child is critical to the child’s success as a student.  They definitely seem to get how important all members of the learning team are to each student and family.  They get how overwhelming this can all be for families new to the school, and mitigate that through one on one attention and time to talk. This is the first time I have prepared to send my boy off to school and am doing so with excitement and basically no apprehension.

I always feel the need to defend teachers here.  I believe almost ALL teachers and school administrators ‘get it’ in terms of all the things I mentioned above.  The difference is that the public system doesn’t allow for this to happen on the scale  that it can happen in a small private school.

As a small aside, I recently watched this Ted Talk about Dyslexia & Privilege which really resonates with me, and I have often talked about how grateful I am that we are able to access resources for Berrik that many many others would not have the means to.  I have wondered many times how I could do something about this…  But that is another blog post entirely.

So today, on the official last day of summer for the kids, I sit here feeling grateful, excited, content, and hopeful.  I look forward to this year of more firsts, more adventures and more challenges too.    Given the natural disasters around the world in this moment, the craziness of the global political climate, and the stresses that many people in my life are facing every day right now, I choose to enjoy this moment and hope for a tomorrow filled with good news.

 

Early Literacy, Invented Spelling and Confidence – what’s the connection?

Over the weekend I was sent an article about a recent study that suggests a direct correlation between invented spelling and literacy.  You can read more about the study here.

invented spellingTo back it up a step or two, invented spelling is the process by which kids will ‘invent’ spellings for words based on what they know about letters and phonetics.  Over time and with more exposure to phonetic rules, practice, and scaffolded spelling instruction, these invented spellings will become closer and closer to the conventional spelling.

The study suggests that kids who are allowed and encouraged to ‘invent’ spelling will more easily and more successfully develop an ability to retrieve these words for future reading and writing.

“Children who used invented spelling developed stronger reading skills over time, regardless of their existing vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, or word reading skills.”

The rationale for this (which makes COMPLETE sense to me, based on my experiences with Berrik and what I have learned about neuroplasticity) is as follows:

“When inventing a spelling, the child is engaged in mental reflection and practice with words, not just memorizing. This strategy strengthens neuronal pathways so as the reader/writer becomes more sophisticated with invented spelling, she or he is developing a repertoire of more and more correctly spelled words at the same time. These words are stored in the word form area of the brain where the child can retrieve them automatically as sight words for reading and eventually as correctly spelled words for writing.”

school photoAlso interesting to note is an 18 month study published in 2010 by the Harvard School of Education comparing child development to Gesell’s “Developmental Schedules” from 1925, 1949, 1964, and 1979, which suggests that kids today are not meeting cognitive milestones any earlier than they were in the 1920s.  Yet in kindergarten the expectations have grown considerably from play-based, to high expectations with regard to reading, writing and math.  We are pushing many kids to do things for which they are not developmentally ready.   There are numerous studies that suggest that pushing kids to do too much too soon might actually cause more harm than good over the longer term, from academic, social and emotional development perspectives.  Here is a review of several of those studies.

So, you might ask….  why did I jump from a discussion of invented spelling and literacy to studies about pushing kids academically before they are ready?  Because for us (and I suspect many, many others) they are directly related.  Berrik was not ready for school when I put him in school.  This was my error.  I made the wrong call.  Hindsight is 20/20. Whatever.  Live and learn.  I put Berrik in a second year of kindergarten.  That was a better call as opposed to pushing him on to Grade 1 when he wasn’t ready.  But really, it was pretty much too late by then.  I didn’t know it at the time.  Hindsight -so hopelessly unhelpful, except when we can share our experiences in hopes that others will learn from them…and because I have learned from it and am doing everything I can to reverse the damage I caused through well-intentioned, but still incorrect decision making.

Here’s why I think entering school before a kid is ready is problematic.  Regardless of age, Berrik was not ready developmentally.  This resulted in an extreme lack of confidence. As he got older he became more and more aware of how others perceived him.  He began to think he was stupid.  He was treated differently by the adults, and therefore the kids treated him differently too.  What does this have to do with invented spelling? school photo1 Let me tell you.  If you feel as though everything you do is wrong, it’s pretty tough to have enough confidence to take a risk and attempt to write a word.  If you have weekly spelling tests that you are not developmentally ready for and understand that you are only getting 3/10 which means you are a failure and you must be stupid because your classmates are getting 9/10, even though you actually know how to spell the words, but you just don’t have enough time to write them down, then you are not going to take risks on ‘inventing’ spelling.  This time last year, my sweet boy was beaten down.  He had zero confidence.  He wouldn’t even attempt to write.  We didn’t even try to make him write for several months.  But let me tell you, his confidence has been growing and growing.  He invents spelling and we don’t correct it as long as he has all the phonetic sounds.  We do sightwords and we learn the rules of phonetics and he has the confidence to attempt to apply those rules when he’s writing.  Over time his invented spelling has become closer and closer to conventional spelling most of the time.  His reading has improved tremendously as a result.  His speech has exploded – words he used to pronounce incorrectly have resolved because he knows the spelling of them, so he knows its a ‘th’ sound not an ‘f’ sound (for example).

I recently overheard someone talking about people who ‘hold their kids back’ for kindergarten (with reference to kids with fall birthdays) and he thought it was possibly to give those kids an advantage in future school sports.  I was a bit floored by that rationale.  I think it’s much more likely that those parents know their own children and felt they just weren’t ready for the academic rigors of kindergarten in these times. Perhaps there are parents who would be thinking about their child’s future advantage in school sports, but I’m guessing the majority are making these decisions from a developmental perspective and wanting to give their children more time to play and develop before they begin their structured academic career.

My point is that age is just a number.  Kids develop at different paces.  I know kids who are 13 months younger than my daughters in the same class, or kids the same age a full grade ahead.  They are doing fine.  Some are excelling.  I also have a friend who decided her son with a fall birthday wasn’t ready for kindergarten when he was 4 years and 10 months, so she let him have one more year at home.  He is in grade 4 and just published his first book.  Seriously.  She knew her kid.  She made a good call.  Let your kids’ development guide your decision making.  It can make such a difference.

Homeschooling has allowed us to back up the train, as it were, and allow Berrik’s literacy to develop naturally.  Sound Connections continues to give us the tools to do this and it’s working.  His confidence is high and that is translating to all school subjects.  He’s willing to take risks and that is exactly what a strong learner does.  But oh, if I could turn back the clock and remake some decisions – I surely would.  We have had much heartbreak and struggles, and I often wonder if those experiences will impact Berrik for life.  This parenting gig is a tough one.  Trust your gut people.  And if it doesn’t work out the way you expect it to, then do what you need to do to get the train back on the track.  None of it is easy, but it’s all worth it.

 

Potential – What’s your maximum?

She has so much potential.  He’s not living up to his potential.  With work they can reach their maximum potential.  All common in the vernacular of our current world.  I heard it (and said it) in my work life as a manager.  And I hear it in the context of my children all the time.  Adjudicators at dance say it.  Avi’s choir director says it.  It’s something people say frequently to either indicate that someone is not doing as well as expected but could improve with work (this is usually meant to be encouraging), or to indicate that they are doing as well as could possibly be expected, (usually with a negative connotation in that the expectations are kind of low).

Potential is defined by Cambridge as:

1. possible when the necessary conditions exist

2. someone’s or something’s ability to develop, achieve, or succeed.

When I think about potential of a human (or lack thereof), I like to combine these two.  Someone’s or something’s ability to develop, achieve, or succeed is possible when the necessary conditions exist.  Take Berrik for example.  (I know, I always take Berrik for example). The more I learn about Berrik and put the necessary conditions in place, his ability to develop, achieve AND succeed increases.  This can be applied to any human, neurotypical, learning disabled, physically disabled, cognitively disabled or otherwise. Incredibly gifted athletes make the Olympics because they and their parents sacrifice many other things to create the ‘necessary conditions’ in the form of diet, training, etc. For some the ‘necessary conditions’ may be more complex than others, but generally speaking, this is how it works.  For all of us.  Even bacteria or viruses develop and succeed when the necessary conditions are in place.  Remove those ‘conditions’ either through medication, diet, or other means, and the bacteria or viruses fail to thrive.  Mold…another good example.  My sourdough bread develops and succeeds if I put the necessary conditions in place.  I could go on.  (and I usually do.)

If you google “quotes about potential” you will find a large number of quotes referring to ‘maximum potential’.  I don’t care for these quotes.  I would argue that there is no such thing as maximum potential, because that suggests there is a limit, and that somehow we can predict it.  Having a child with learning disabilities magnifies this idea of ‘maximum potential’ and the risks associated with putting a limit on potential.  More than once in Berrik’s short school career, someone has put a limit on his potential, either verbally or in writing.  I believe that labels contribute to this tendency toward predicting and limiting potential.  It’s not the only factor, but it can provide a catalyst in a system that is not well resourced for kids who don’t have an easy time in a classroom environment.

Nothing makes me more frustrated than someone assuming a child (particularly MY child) has limited potential.  And if I worried about Berrik’s potential in the past, I worry much less now.  The gains he has made this past 10 months have been mind blowing. I wouldn’t have expected so much growth in such a short amount of time.  And despite a major shift in my own expectations, he continues to surprise me.  And I continue to shift my expectations upward.  Most importantly, I believe his potential has no limits.

Sir Winston Churchill once said:

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.

I love this quote.  I love that it doesn’t talk about maximums.  I love that it reminds us that success (however that looks for each individual) takes continuous effort.

As I type this, Berrik is writing a story and is on his third page.  In January he started ‘journal writing’ with one simple sentence.  Today he is using a planning template to plan a story using topic sentences, details, transitional language and powerful endings, and is writing; willingly, albeit slowly at times.  I believed we would get to this point eventually.  In January I would not have believed we’d be here already in April.

img_8508So often, particularly with kids with differently wired brains, learning disabilities, or any other disability, we are quick to focus on what they cannot do.  Often teachers/therapists will talk about strengths, but the system (and sometimes the imposed limitations on perceived potential) result in lack of ability or desire to truly build on those strengths.  I have said this so frequently I feel like a broken record, but despite the fact that we have had many positive (and negative) experiences with teachers, speech therapists etc., the people at Sound Connections are the first to truly believe that there is no limit to Berrik’s potential.  There is no discussion of labels.  It’s not relevant.  Each week we look at where Berrik is at and then we move forward based on that.  I am frequently consulted on what I think Berrik needs.  And Annette uses her considerable experience and expertise to determine what to do next, how fast to go, when to circle back.  Having had years and years of experience working with 100s and 100s, possibly 1000s of kids, she knows that ALL children have potential.  She believes it and you can see it in her program, in her approach.  As a mom who believes this of her child, I can’t tell you how critical it has been to know that someone else believes it too.  Sound Connections, homeschooling, diet, exercise….these are some of the ‘necessary conditions’ that I am putting in place so Berrik can continue to develop, achieve and succeed.  And that has been potentially (see what I did there?) life changing.

 

Teach for Mastery, Not Test Scores

I will admit that I am a bit of a Ted Talk junkie.  Add to that a healthy respect for and frequent use of the Khan Academy learning materials and you’ll understand why I LOVE this particular Ted Talk by Sal Khan:

I recommend watching the Ted Talk – it’s 10 minutes of simple brilliance.  But the general overview is that our current education system that teaches for test scores rather than mastery is causing a multitude of issues that could be overcome with a shift in mindset.  My favourite analogy in the talk is about Math.  Kids learn math concepts from an early age.  They are tested.  Let’s say they get 75%.  That’s a good grade.  They move on.  After a few years of 75% mastery, you can imagine that the 25% gaps in knowledge will create some critical issues.  Without mastery of earlier concepts, at some point, more complex concepts will become extremely difficult, and you will start to hear kids say, “I’m just not good at math.”  You can apply this to many subjects.  If kids were expected to achieve mastery before moving on (by using technology and any number of free and easily accessible resources – thank you, world wide web!), then nearly 100% of the population would be able to read, do calculus, organic chemistry etc.  He goes on to talk also about the benefits of kids learning to seek the information they need, the perseverance, taking agency over their own learning, as critical life skills.

As a homeschooling mom of a kid who has had significant challenges learning to read, and as a result also struggled in math, I fully subscribe to this philosophy of mastery over test scores.  My first introduction to this concept, or at least the first time it was articulated to me in a way that really hit home, was in Sound Connections.  Berrik does not move on to a more complex concept until he has mastered the concept he is currently working on.  And we constantly review earlier concepts as full mastery and ability to quickly access those concepts results in faster and more successful mastery of more complex concepts.

Imagine a kid who has trouble learning to read due to a learning disability that is diagnosed in grade 3.  In a typical classroom, that kid who may now have accommodations or therapies is just starting to learn to read.  What are the chances that anyone at school will go right back to the beginning…the early reading skills that kids are exposed to in preschool, kindergarten and grade 1?  Slim.  There just isn’t time. So unless he’s in a program like Sound Connections, there are going to be some gaps that will make things more challenging down the road.

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If only all kids were given the opportunity to master all pre-reading concepts and then early reading concepts and so on and so on!  Watching my kid go from low self confidence and feeling as though he was ‘stupid’ to successfully reading, and learning to decode words, and understanding advanced sound rules (and learning that the rules are all made to be broken in the English language), and learning to spell and write stories has been an incredible journey.  Yes, I homeschool so I have time.  But it’s not the time so much as the access to resources and guidance that have allowed us to efficiently work on mastering concepts. We are playing catch up.  But if these resources and methods were implemented in all kindergartens and grade 1 classes, the foundations would be strong for all kids.

Knowing that mastery is the key has changed the way we approach everything.  This is the true beauty of homeschooling for me.  We do NOT move on until a concept is mastered.  And there is no one telling me I have to.  And not surprisingly, ensuring mastery along the way has resulted in Berrik moving more quickly (especially in math) even as concepts get more complex.  We are still unravelling the puzzle pieces of why Berrik struggles so much with reading and writing – more on vision therapy and other things later.  However, in Math, we started in September doing Grade 1 Math.  We are now working on Grade 2 Math and I expect Berrik to be ready for Grade 3 Math in September when he enters Grade 3.

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My two older daughters both do well in school.  Even so, Khan’s example rang true for both of them with regard to Math.  Lack of mastery of some concepts (like memorizing timestables, for example) took 3-4 years before it truly came back to bite them. Suddenly more advanced math concepts that require an ability to recall single digit multiplication became onerous and challenging.  I remember McKenna at one point, maybe in grade 7, realizing that knowing multiplication tables like the back of her hand was a critical skill, so she took the time (on her own time, because that is a grade 3 concept!) to memorize them.  This year in Grade 8, Math is one of her strongest subjects.

It is so very simple, and it is now scalable in the classroom like it never has been in history.  It simply requires a shift in thinking.  An example Khan talks about is hearing from teachers who started assigning the Khan Academy math videos as homework and then doing the practice in class time, instead of the typical method of lecturing and teaching concepts in class and sending kids home to practice on their own with their busy and bewildered parents.  It’s no surprise that this resulted in significantly higher success rates.  And as a parent who has spent many an hour at the table doing math with kids (in spanish no less), I would be over the moon if our homework was to watch the video instead of do the practice.  For the record, many times I had to Google translate the instructions to english and then watch a Khan Academy video to teach myself what my daughters were supposed to be practicing, and then try to help them! PAINFUL.

I think a lot of homeschoolers choose homeschooling for this ability to allow kids to learn at their own pace, and achieve mastery before moving on.  It has been life changing for us this year.

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I am going to throw in a final plug for the Khan Academy.  This website/app is FREE, and you can learn just about anything.  We are using it for math and it’s pretty fantastic.  Sal has created videos about concepts which you can watch as many times as you need to. Then you practice.  A specific number of correct answers identifies mastery.  If you struggle, there are links back to the videos right in the questions, and there are also hints to help you. If you have an account, your data is tracked and you can access and analyze your child’s (or your own) progress.  Even better, the site has been gameified which I know from my L&D world is excellent for motivation and engagement.

My engineer husband who works in the construction industry would never consider building a skyscraper on a foundation that is 80% complete, so why are we building the minds of our children on these faulty, incomplete foundations?

Let’s KISS

Keep it simple, stupid.  Having had a child who felt he was ‘stupid’ based on his school experience, I tend to dislike the word.  I still feel an emotional response to hearing it, because it takes me back to 8 months ago when Berrik told me he was too stupid for school and that the kids didn’t like him because he was stupid.  I worry that the word will always be a trigger for him, like it now is for me.  In spite of that, I have always loved the KISS principle.  I like the simplicity of the statement and how much applicability it has to pretty much everything.

KISS is an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid” as a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960.[1][2] The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.

That said, I am pretty darned terrible about applying it.  In fact, I would say I have a tendency to overcomplicate most things in my life.  This past year with Berrik’s diet changes, supplements, and schoolwork, I have ventured down the path of overcomplication a few times, but I am happy to say that I am slowly getting better at keeping it simple.  It is my tendency to start out with a simple plan, and then I will find myself complicating the situation, and then I pull back and reset.  Again.  I suspect I will do this over and over for the rest of my life.  The key for me is recognizing it sooner and resetting more quickly.

Some key areas where I (attempt to) apply the KISS principle in our family life are as follows:

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  1. Food.  While Berrik’s diet may sound complicated, it’s actually incredibly simple.  Is it real food in it’s original form?  Great, he can eat it.  It’s really that simple.  In pretty much every restaurant (less so in fast food, but we avoid those place for many reasons and always have) will have the option to order a protein and vegetables.  It won’t likely be on the menu, but ask for a grilled chicken breast and some steamed or raw veggies, and almost everyone will accommodate, no questions asked.  When I do this, I usually get a chef or manager coming out to ask about allergies.  I confess that I don’t outright lie, but I do let assumptions work in my favor.  “Exposure to gluten or refined sugar will make him very unwell.”  This is 100% truth, however, the assumption is often that these things would be life threatening or that he has Celiac disease.  I feel ok with that if it means that Berrik can have a regular piece of meat without any breading or unknown additions.  More importantly, at home, this way of eating is very, very simple.  Once you get into the swing of things, you start to change your ideas about what convenience food is as well.  For me, convenience food is making enough dinner to have a day or two of leftovers in the fridge for lunches so I’m not scrambling or feeling like I have to resort to something processed because there is nothing else and I don’t have time to prepare real food.  Having a lot of fresh produce in the house at all times requires a bit of planning, but is also very convenient.  As are nuts and seeds.  We use SPUD.ca for produce delivery every week, so I know that even if I can’t get out to the store, we will still have produce (as well as many other items from SPUD.ca). I know not everyone is into baking like I am, but I find it convenient to make a large volume of ‘treats’ like coconut balls or ‘fat bombs’, and keeping them in the freezer.  Last minute play date where the kids are having cookies?  No problem.  I pull out a couple frozen treats and send them with Berrik.  It can be quite simple.  It should be simple.  All kids are better off with this simplicity in my opinion.  Not to say there should be no ‘treats’ ever, but I do think we can redefine what ‘treat’ means, and I feel like many of us misuse or misunderstand the term moderation.  Everything in moderation is a common adage these days.  The problem is that most of us take every category of ‘treat’ and have a moderate amount of each of those treats regularly.  Moderate consumption of each of bagged snack food (chips), fast food, processed foods, and sugar on a regular basis is no longer moderation.  Let’s say we have 3-4 things from each of the above mentioned categories on a weekly basis (and I would venture to guess that most of us eat more than that), we are eating up to 16 servings of ‘treats’ each week. The reality is, in my opinion, that we need to combine all ‘treats’ into one category and choose 3-4 per week.  Would it take some planning and a major lifestyle change?  Of course.  Would it be just too expensive?  Nope…it’s actually not that expensive to eat only real food.  Processed foods and eating out are more expensive in the long run.  We would all feel better and many of the diet related issues that plague North Americans would be minimized.pexels-photo-199093
  2. Schedule.  Oh how I struggle keeping a simple schedule.  Our family calendar is a gong show.  But where I implement ‘simple’ is we use one digital iCal. Anyone with iCloud can access it.  This means everyone in the family has access to it.  Kevin isn’t an apple user, but he can log into the calendar through iCloud in his browser, and see exactly who is doing what, where and when.  He and I both add all of our activities in it as well, so when we are planning something, we can instantly see what is happening on that date and decide if we can add another item or not.  This keeps things relatively simple, and we rarely forget to take ourselves or one of the kids to where they need to go.  Our day to day lives are not simple.  McKenna dances pretty much every day.  Avi has choir, basketball and sewing club every week.  Berrik has Cub Scouts, karate and of course his school activities every week, plus skiing and skating when there is time. Super complicated.  However, it is all in the calendar so we have a relatively simple system that works for us.  We carpool where we can which further simplifies life.   Simple doesn’t always have to mean doing less.  In this context, simple is just finding the most efficient way to manage our crazy lives, simplifying wherever we possibly can.image
  3. School.  Homeschooling is simple.  Or it can be.  I have overcomplicated it a few times in our short homeschooling career, but I know that we both fare significantly better if we KISS school.  We have developed a routine and a rhythm that works for both of us and is proving to be highly effective.  The three R’s of my childhood (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic – Um, who determined this was the three R’s???) make the foundation of what we do on a daily basis.  While the details of each may seem complicated, they really aren’t as they all are areas of learning that have a foundation from which you continually build in increments.  Quite simple once you wrap your head around it.  Science, social studies, art, phys.ed, music, all can stem from the three R’s.  Reading and writing about social studies topics, music is very mathematical, art and science can include all sorts of information about scale, measurements, estimation, and pretty much every other foundational math skill that exists. I have learned that it is not necessary to do a separate ‘class’ for each subject.  We integrate the three R’s into all subjects and so everything we do has some math, some writing and some reading.  We learn about scientific process, making inferences, geography, community, culture, art, physical activity, music etc., throughout our days in different ways, using those basic skills.  The huge benefit of homeschool is the ability to make it simple in the way that works best for Berrik.  He needs considerably more time spent on reading and writing than on math, so we integrate that into more of our activities on a daily basis.  It works for us and he is thriving.image
  4. Family time.  This is also simple.  It did not used to be, but because we decided it was a priority, it has become more simple.  We eat together almost every day at dinnertime.  No technology is allowed and we catch up with everyone about their day. All other family time is scheduled in a different way – daddy time with Berrik or the girls or just one of the girls whenever there is a window of opportunity.  Bedtime chats with the girls most nights (individually), so they can tell me about what is going on in their heads, in their relationships, in their lives.  It’s such a short amount of time.  Sometimes only 5 minutes.  But it’s frequent and almost always available to them, so it works. Trying to schedule whole family outings is nearly impossible. So I stopped trying to do it beyond our dinnertime.  No need to complicate it.  And as we see that one or more of the kids (or Kevin and I) need more time together, we find the time in the schedule and we do it.  I will say that being home this year has facilitated this, but even if I was working, it’s more the commitment to it and doing it no matter what that keeps it simple.  “Can I go to a friends after school?”  “Not tonight honey, I want you home for dinner.”  It’s really that simple.  I hoard and protect that time because it’s my only guaranteed time.image
  5. Relationships.  I am fortunate to have a pretty large circle of pretty cool friends.  Some I see regularly thanks to dance or other kids activities that we both have kids involved in.  Some I see regularly because of a shared activity that we (the adults) participate in.  Some I see only once or twice a year, and a few even less than that.  The beauty is that all of my friends seem to look at our relationship in a similar way.  We don’t complain or berate each other when we haven’t seen each other for  weeks or months. We just take our opportunities where we can, and enjoy the time we have when we have it.  Not to say we passively await a perfect storm of opportunity, we sometimes make considerable effort to find a time that works, commit to it, and make it happen.  But on the same token, I never feel pressure.  I know we would all like more time together, but we are each prioritizing our lives in a way that makes sense for our families or ourselves, and I rarely feel that anyone is frustrated or upset about time span between visits.  I guess the KISS principle application is that you need to surround with friends who share your outlook, who love you no matter how much they see you (and vice versa), who are there when you need them (and vice versa), and who can pick up where you left off no matter if it’s been 2 days or 2 years. Make a simple list of the most important qualities you want in a friend, and if anyone doesn’t meet the criteria, (hint: if they don’t meet yours, you likely don’t meet theirs either) then keep them at acquaintance level and move on.

Every time I write a blog post like this one, I read and reread, and often feel like whatever I’m writing about sounds way easier than it is.  This post is no exception. My philosophy is really that everything is a journey and that we can only do what we can do.  Some people are the masters of simplification, right down to having only a handful of outfits and just rotating through them…or like Mr. Facebook himself, wearing the same thing every single day to remove the need to make a fashion decision on a daily basis. Or having limited ‘stuff’ in their house, or even limiting activities or friends!  Simple is relative.  Simplify where you can, in baby steps. And because you’re human, things will likely get complicated, so when they do, step back and figure out where you can simplify again.  Keeping it simple is anything but simple.  Ironically, it can start out quite complicated!  Do what makes sense for you and forget the rest.  It’s that simple ;-).

And for all my friends who I haven’t seen in awhile (assuming any of you actually read my blog!), I can’t wait to see you again.  Call me, or I’ll call you.  Soon.  (TG, stay by your phone.  We are due).

Executive Function – It’s not a VP luncheon!

The first time I heard the term Executive Function, I immediately envisioned the executive team where I worked attending a luncheon. Which didn’t make much sense considering I was in a conversation about Berrik.

Executive function (and self-regulation) is defined by the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard as:

…the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

This requires three key components:

  1. Working Memory
  2. Mental Flexibility
  3. Self Control

Children are not born with these skills.  They are learned, and continue to develop into early adulthood.  Many kids will pick these up through lived experiences combined with direct instruction that they will be exposed to as part of playing, school, interactions with family and friends, and just about all life experiences.  For many kids, it is relatively seamless over the developmental years.  Three and four year olds learn about turn taking and are able to grasp and apply the concept, either through learning at preschool, interactions (read: squabbles) with friends at play dates or with siblings.  As kids’ brains develop, their working memory, mental flexibility and self control, typically develop as well.  For some kids, the development of executive function isn’t quite so seamless, for a variety of different reasons.

We are working on executive function skills with Berrik all the time.  Some of the potential reasons why he hasn’t had a seamless development of these skills is likely due at least in part to receptive and expressive speech delay.  When you don’t totally understand what is being said, and you aren’t able to express yourself in those early developmental years, it’s easy to understand why a kid may not ‘intuitively’ develop these skills from play and life experiences.  It’s difficult to relate outcomes to what is going on, when  you aren’t quite sure what just happened or why.  For this reason, Berrik and I work on building his capacity with these skills.  The wonderful thing about brains and neuroplasticity is that it is possible to improve capacity in these areas, and I see the evidence in Berrik consistently.  Because of the challenges he faces with receptive and expressive speech, I assume that he will always require strategies to support his executive functioning skills.  (If I’m wrong and he catches up to his peers, then all the better, but in the mean time, he needs strategies now, so that is what we work on).

Working Memory – Berrik can be challenged to keep information in his head long enough to manipulate that information.  As a result, we work on building his capacity to do so through practice using a variety of different games and activities, as well as through modelling and practicing strategies to support this.  Things like visualization, repeating things back, taking notes or drawing pictures are all helpful.  This is something that we practice as part of all subjects (and all parts of life, actually).  It’s pretty easy to incorporate.  There is always something to ‘remember’ as we do schoolwork, so I will often help him use his strategies to keep the information in his head, and then ask questions or ask him to do something that requires him to manipulate the information in some way.  For example, if we are doing a science experiment, we will go through a few steps that we will  need to take to complete the experiment (or a portion of it).  Then I may ask him to skip a step and come back to it.  Initially we will do this using visuals, so he can physically move the skipped step and put it in the new order.  Depending on the topic (it’s easier when the material is familiar), I will have him do this only in his head, using visualization, and repeating.  As he gets good at doing this, I up the ante and add more steps, or make the manipulation more challenging.  I see this as a two-fold exercise.  First, I am helping him work his brain and develop new neural pathways.  You can read about Neuroplasticity here.  Second, I am helping him develop strategies that he can use throughout his life in the likely case that this is always a challenge for him.

Another great game for working memory is the game of ‘Memory’  (Go figure). The game is also called ‘Concentration.’   We use it with sight words (thank you Sound Connections for that idea!), and also with facts in science, social studies and we are just starting to use it in math.  In science we recently did a unit on the Earth’s water cycle.  In the Memory game, I created cards for different parts of the cycle – words on one card, pictures on the other set – and Berrik had to not only match them up, but remember where each card was as we flipped them over.  We started first with matching only, with all cards visible.  Then we moved to the actual Memory game, where all cards are face down, you flip two and find the matches.  Memory, reading practice, and learning about science all in one activity. In Math, I will use two different depictions of the same numbers (as we work with base 10 blocks), and Berrik has to identify which ones represent the same number and then match them.  I am currently building a game where the cards are addition and subtraction problems and he has to find the two that have the same answer.  The key is to make sure he is pretty strong on all the cards first, and then use them in the Memory game.  It then doubles as a working memory exercise and a review of whatever subject we are working on.  It’s quite effective, and it can be used for pretty much anything.

Mental Flexibility – This comes into play when something unpredictable or unexpected happens and Berrik needs to be able to adapt and adjust to the new situation and respond appropriately.  This is fun to work on, as it’s almost like you can see the wheels turning inside Berrik’s head as he tries to figure out how to apply old rules to new situations.  We play games and then I will switch up the rules.  This helps with working memory as well, as he now has to remember the new rules as well as apply them.  Starting simple and then scaffolding is the key.  Build on skills rather than trying to jump ahead.  For a kid who had a rough grade 1 year, confidence is something that is coming along, but still needs work.  When you develop the base skills and then build on those, you are setting up for success.  Success means confidence.  Confidence means willingness to take some risks.  Taking risks means increased learning opportunities.  It’s a process.   And when he takes some risks, we really celebrate the effort as opposed to the outcome.  Outcomes will vary throughout life – for all of us – but those of us who aren’t afraid to make the effort and take a chance will see more success in life, in my opinion.  I know this from my experience in both learning, and in people management.  It rings true over and over.

Some examples of ways to do this:  In the Snakes and Ladders game, play it the normal way and then play it where you must go up the slides and down the ladders.  Play basketball, and instead of dribbling the ball, you have to toss it up and down in the air instead (this is great for all kinds of brain and coordination work).  Or if you have enough people, only allow passing, no dribbling.  Or only shoot backwards.  Anything that changes the rules, will work.  Simon Says is another good game to play for mental flexibility, working memory AND self control.  It’s also easily adaptable for kids Berrik’s age depending on interest.  When we play, Simon will often say “kick like a ninja” or “turn into the blue power ranger” etc., as that is what Berrik is interested in.  The sillier ‘Simon’ is, the more fun Berrik has with it.  I also let him be ‘Simon’ as this is great for his planning and language skills.

Self Control – In terms of impulsiveness, Berrik is fine.  The ability to set priorities is likely behind what most 8 year olds are able to do.  We work on this every single day as we plan our days.  We will talk about what is important to get done, what we would prefer to do, and how we should set up our day to get these things accomplished.  We look at the week ahead, and the months ahead as well.  Even on individual tasks we will set priorities.  What I have found is that sometimes Berrik’s priorities will be ‘out of order’ but when I ask him to explain his rationale, he has a very rational reason (rational reason for an 8 year old!).  It occurred to me after one of his explanations that if I asked my neurotypical daughters to prioritize their day for me, I suspect theirs would be ‘out of order’ as well! Sometimes I need to be reminded that it is completely typical for kids’ priorities to not match parents.  Duh.

In the photo below, Berrik and I created this camel by looking at a photo and building it, step by step.  So much planning and prioritizing with these types of activities. And if you get it wrong, it just doesn’t work.  Berrik is actually very strong in this type of planning.  If he loses patience with the activity, I’ll just do the building and have him correct me.  I will do something wrong to let him catch me. (Full disclosure, I only ‘accidentally’ mix it up some of the time.  Often I mess it up without realizing.  This type of detailed planning is not my strength.)  Variations on the game Red Light Green Light are great for self control as well.  When we play this, I usually do bear crawls or crab walks or hopping/jumping.  When physical exertion is part of the game, it requires more concentration to listen and stay focused.

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As you can tell, we do things here with as much efficiency as possible, with the most possible gain.  It would be overwhelming if I tried to individually teach or facilitate each area that Berrik needs to work on.  Combining activities and outcomes is not only more efficient, it’s actually more effective as it almost certain to require a multisensory approach.  Additionally, it’s more similar to real life in that you don’t ever just get to use one skill in whatever tasks you’re working on from day to day.  You need to be able to access it all, at the same time, in varying levels.  What is exciting, is that I can consistently see progress in all areas, and even though I may have been focusing more on one area than another, I will see the benefit show up in unexpected places.  That application of knowledge and skills in different contexts is really the key outcome for me.  It tells me that what we are doing is working.

If you’re looking for more information on executive function, or on child development in general, the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard site is excellent.