April 11, 2014

Anger management comes home


by Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

There was a time when anger wasn’t really an issue in my life. At most there were misunderstandings that arose between well-meaning adults who treated each other with respect. People with “anger issues” seemed to inhabit a faraway planet with a landscape of inexplicable strife, screaming and stress.  

Then I became a parent. 

Suddenly, there were feelings, by the boatload, with tears, whines, whispered invectives and yes, yelling that pin-balled around our little house. Suddenly, I wasn’t a coolheaded professional smiling my way along a high road of meetings, work lunches and dinner parties. I was a red eyed, broken tongued monster mama of the lost temper and found weaknesses. Then I spoke to other parents and I discovered this humbling transformation wasn’t so much a revelation of my particular bodi-satva/cross-to-bear but just, well, normal.

As parents, we welcome our kids into the world embracing them with Love with a big L. Love will show the way, we whisper, cradling that tiny creature in the first days of their fragile lives. Then fragility grows into bumptious beings whose very development is predicated on pressing our buttons, pushing our limits, and giving us reasons to holler: Put your shoes on! We’re late! Don’t hit your sister! Don’t speak to me in that tone! and million other found objects in the junk heap of parenting bloopers that find themselves coming to life in our vocal chords. 

This is why I was so thrilled about our first Emotional Smarts Hangout last week – the first of our online live chats with parenting experts we've launched with Social Moms and If You.  For this first Emotional Smarts Hangout, I spoke about anger and parenting with Marc Brackett, director of Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence and one of the foremost voices on the social emotional learning in the country and America’s Supernanny Deborah Tillman, whose Lifetime show goes into days of “lock-down” with families in crisis. 

They come from such distinct walks of life – Marc a researcher scientist at a New England Ivy League, Deborah a professional childcare center director and mother turned reality TV star – that I imagined that they might have very disparate approaches to the same topic. They might even disagree! 

But the real surprise was their shared understanding: turns out that anger management in the shadow of the Ivory Tower and the spotlight of cable TV are not so different after all. At the heart of both Marc and Deborah’s message is that parents need to be the role model for their children’s emotional learning and yes, it’s not easy, and no, no one’s perfect, but it is possible and hugely important.  

Both speakers abounded in insights, but each offered brilliant encapsulations of some simple principals that all parents can use when it comes to parenting and anger:

On being a role model:

Deborah Tillman offered an inspired motto for parenting when a child is acting up that refocuses the parent on what they should do: “Remember, you are teaching, training, and talking from 0-10 years old and listening, learning, and loving the 'new' people they are becoming from 10-20 years old. You want to lead by example and model the behavior that you want your child to exhibit.”

On being your best parent self:

Marc Brackett recommended thinking of five words that describe you as a parent at your very best. When you’re angry, go back to that image of your best self and let that person take ownership of the situation. By shifting attention away from the child’s behavior and onto your desire to be your “best self,” you can refocus your parenting strategies and quell your anger.

On children’s tantrums:

Tillman observed that children often don’t really know why they’re angry because it’s not what’s on the surface. She advised taking the time to communicate more about feelings – whether it means more conversation, singing, writing a letter, or anything else that allows for the expression of real emotion.

When you find yourself loosin’ it regularly:

Brackett advised that parents ask themselves: "Is that strategy working? If you're using that yelling and screaming, 'Get to your bedroom!' and that's not working [then you have to change it.]"  He acknowleged that "parents are very stressed. When their internal resources are depleted, burned from work, hungry, tired, that's when they're at their worst." And that of course is the time that parents' anger is triggered. "That's when you have to be your best self. You have to say: "I'm the most caring, empathic, loving mother on earth."

On sibling rivalry:

If a family is struggling with sibling rivalry, Deborah suggests that parents take a step back and include their own behavior in the picture: “If you go scream at two kids arguing and fighting and the kids look at you, "Well, that's how we handle the problem…" Take a step back look in the mirror. It's not about making this child, it's about raising this child. What do I need to do as a person to do that?”

Finally, there were a few great questions from parents during the chat that didn’t get answered and I wanted to make sure a few of them did. Deborah Tillman generously replied to some this week.


Michelle Filice: What if the parent was raised with a single parent that showed no emotion ,let alone didn't play with you to give you that imaginative mind. What should that parent do?

 We don’t always get the best examples growing up. Believing that your parent did the best they could will help you get past any form of resentment. However, I would suggest that since you recognize the lack of emotional connection was an issue, you have the opportunity to understand how that made you feel and don’t pass that along to your children. I encourage you to lead by example and make every effort to have an open line of communication between you and your children. Set aside some time each night to discuss your feelings. My family used to call it the “Lemon squeeze.” We went around the circle and each person got the chance to speak about what “soured” their day and what “sweetened” their day. Only by talking will you be able to open up a floodgate of emotions that you may have never experienced if you did not make a conscious effort. 

ConnieM: Is it ever justified or reasonable to blow up at your child?

It depends on what you mean by “blow up.” Certainly, it may be justified but certainly not the example we want to set as parents. You want to lead by example and model the behavior that you want your child to exhibit. Is it easy? Of course not. If it were, we would all be able to do it 100 percent of the time. For those times when you do yell or “blow up” this is a reminder that you are human and have the opportunity to go to your child and apologize. Continue to work on yourself and figure out the triggers that get you to the blowing up phase. Once you recognize you might be heading in that direction, you can walk away and take a few minutes to gather your thoughts and emotions BEFORE addressing your child. 

DanielleP: My teen daughter cries a lot and is very dramatic about everything. How do I calm her down without seeming like I'm being insensitive?

Your teen daughter is probably going through a lot of changes emotionally, physically, mentally, etc. Therefore, patience is the order of the day. Get her to journal write or spend more time talking to you. It is difficult to get a teen to calm down once they are already emotional. When she is not emotional is when you want to talk to her about her feelings and why she gets so upset over certain things. You also want her to come up with some emotionally healthy ways to express her emotions besides becoming so dramatic. Remember not to be judgmental or critical. 

Is aggression human nature? Most scientists would say yes. From the invention of the fork (instead of carrying a sharp knife) to laws against violence to cultural practices like lining up, our everyday lives are suffused with objects and behaviors designed to tame and curtail the dragon within.

But in the family – as a society – the dragon wrecks havoc. According to recent statistics, there’s nearly a million incidents of domestic violence every year and 25% of women have experienced domestic violence.  And there are heartbreakingly nearly 700,000  cases of child abuse per year. Children contribute to the national rage, too: one study found that 37% of children had committed at least one act of serious abuse during the previous year.

So if your family sometimes isn’t the peaceful sanctuary you’d like it to be, don’t beat yourself up. But also, say the experts, don’t ignore the issue. You have the power to switch the channel away from tantrums and tirades and toward real communication. It may not be easy – sometimes it may feel superhuman. But you won’t be alone. In fact,  millions of other parents including yours truly will be right there with you.

(Please join us on June 4 at 11:00 PT/2:00 ET for our second Emotional Smarts Hangout with Today Show's parenting expert Michele Borba and NBA star Adonal Foyle, who will be talking about learning to fail.)

March 28, 2014

Edu-tainment in a pinch


By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Picking up BBQ supplies at the store on Sunday, I saw a mom perform one of the quickest tantrum turnarounds ever. Faced with a 3-year-old on the brink, the mom made a beeline for the card section. Squatting beside their cart full of groceries, mother and daughter enjoyed reading card after illustrated card. "Nice save," I said as I passed. The mom looked up and smiled.

This mom found the perfect bit of edu-tainment for when the going got rough – one of those benign tricks every parent needs in this chaotic world of traffic jams and grocery store meltdowns.

Funny birthday cards are good. But what I recently discovered – teed up on a smartphone – is better because all you need is something you're already carrying. Oh, and something your kid pretty much always wants to play with to boot. Turns out there are people – nice lovely people – who have posted videos of themselves on YouTube reading children’s books aloud and with expression, page by page.

I know this is no substitute for parents reading books to their children, cuddled on the couch or tucked in for bedtime. But in the car when the whining reaches a fever pitch or the day your child is home sick and your big work project is due or when you’ve got laryngitis, these digitally captured stories may be just the ticket. They're lifesavers when all heck has broken lose – and they support your child’s education. 

My first discovery: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs read aloud, page by page.


Here are some of my other finds, but there are plenty more!

The Day the Crayons Quit - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDBTwtEuY24

Pinkalicious- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeVr-xjGc7A

Purplicious - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERBgIvDylzk

Dragons Love Tacos - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rizHcQjektA

Green Eggs and Ham - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbeSIiN1R-M

Do you know of other quick, magical e-learning tricks or resources that have made your life easier while still helping your child? Please share and share alike! 


What does it take to raise kids who are kind, smart, resilient, persistent, and cooperative?


by Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

If my personal experience as a parent has taught me anything, the short answer is a lot.  The long answer is that learning how to raise emotionally intelligent kids usually means looking for the best advise from the onslaught of information out there – the writer you’ve come to trust, that smart mom or inspired teacher, whatever wisdom you can glean that will make sense for your family.

That’s why I’m so proud to announce Emotional Smarts: Conversations on Parenting, a Google+ Hangout On Air, in collaboration SocialMoms, and social emotional gaming company If You Can. This series will bring some of the most insightful voices in parenting and education together with influencers from other fields to talk about developing emotional intelligence in our kids – and ourselves.

Over the next few months, we'll pair experts with divergent views to explore a common parenting theme and offer practical wisdom and tactical advice.

For this first hangout, ivory tower meets reality TV when Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, speaks with America’s Supernanny Deborah Tillman – who, for her weekly Lifetime television show, goes into “lockdown” with families in crisis.

Tantrums and tirades

 Brackett and Tillman will share their ideas and tips on dealing with one of the most intractable of all parental pain points: anger in the family. Whether dealing with a child who is melting down or grappling with your own mounting frustration, every parent has struggled with this problem at some point. Should children be told to stay positive or express their anger? What are the best ways to deal with a child who has simply lost it?  How do you know if your own behavior is contributing to the problem? 

Join us Wednesday, April 2, 2 pm EST (11 am PST) for a spirited exploration of one of the most common – and difficult – issues in family life and jump in with your questions.

Just sign up via http://bit.ly/TantrumsAndTirades and log on at the appointed time to participate. In this unique forum, you’re invited to join the video conversation by contributing real-time questions and comments via the Google+ hangout page or Twitter via #emotionalsmarts  

If you can’t make the live event, no problem, you can watch it later on GreatSchools or SocialMoms.

March 11, 2014

Does smart TV make our kids smarter?


By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Like many parents, I’d much rather see my child read a book than watch TV, but lately I’ve had to question this assumption because TV has gotten so good.

When I was growing up, TV seldom explored moral ambiguity or questioned the status quo. The TV world back then was uncomplicated, largely white, and populated with wholesome families and heroes who always got the bad guys.

Golden age of television

TV has come a long way since then, of course, and many herald a golden age of television, citing series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, True Detectives, Madmen, Girls, and Game of Thrones.

As critic David Carr observed in the New York Times, “The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books — intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues... In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.”

(It's also true that if TV is much better these days, it’s also much worse: consider the swarm of reality shows — from Date My Mom to Storage Wars to Virgin Diaries — that make the old shows seem refreshingly innocent and self-respecting in comparison.)

The new novel?

Most of the new shows Carr cites aren’t appropriate for young kids, of course, although friends tell me that TV for younger kids is also much better these days. But my boys are 19 and almost 18, and in recent years they’ve followed several different series that have sparked their imaginations. I wasn't thrilled about the screentime at first, but then I began noticing that my kids and their friends were having discussions about character and plot. After they started watching True Detectives, they tracked down and immediately read The King in Yellow, a turn-of-the-century collection of short stories that, in the show, helps the detectives crack the crime. True Detective is not the only show that got them reading, either: one of my sons devoured all the Game of Thrones books and then got hooked on the series; my other son started the series before tackling the books.

When I ask my kids why they like these shows so much, they talk about the engaging, often deeply troubled characters, the smart dialogue and plot twists, the complex relationships and suspense. They love the shows, in another words, not just because they tell a compelling story, but because they make them think and feel and experience life from a new perspective — the way a great book can do.  

What books do best

Is this a valid comparision? Are TV shows, as some insist, the novels of today? In The New York Times Book Review, critic and poet Adam Kirsch argues that novels are far more subtle and powerful than even the best TV show:  “Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for our good TV shows; but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can.”

I’m with Kirsh — and I’d still prefer to see my kids reading than watching the tube — but it doesn't have to be a matter of either/or. When I asked one of my sons which he prefers, watching a fantastic TV show or reading a wonderful book, he told me, “I like both. Why do I have to choose between two good things?”

March 10, 2014

Is audiobook reading really reading?

By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

It’s 10:48 p.m. on a Sunday night. I know because that’s the moment my teen son starts tapping on the door to wake me up. I squint one eye open long enough to examine my bedside clock.

“Mo-om! Audible's not working! I need help!”

If I weren’t so tired, I'd find this hilarious. My 16 year old asking me for any technological support is nothing short of ludicrous, since he does computer programming and, well, unlike some people around here, he wasn’t born somewhere in the middle of the past century when the single glowing thing in my childhood home was a clunky TV with only six channels that you had to stand up to change.

“Pl-ease! I’m going to fail the English quiz tomorrow if I can’t read it.”

This is also funny because my very smart son doesn’t intend to read The Grapes of Wrath. He’s going to listen to it on his phone, just the same way he listened to The Great Gatsby last month.

“Arghhhhh!” he yells, stretching out the word into a sentence out as only a teenager can. “Help me!”

I stumble out of bed and into his room where, what do you know, a vestige of times past is affably sitting on his nightstand: a paperback copy of Steinbeck's classic. 

“You have it right there!" I growl. "Just read the book!”

“You don't understand! I read books better by listening to them!”

There is no winning this fight, this attempt to have him hold the unwieldy foreign object in his hands and, as my people learned to do long ago, read left to right, turning pages from book's beginning to end. I log into my Amazon account and download the book. I’m just about launch into my, “When I was your age, we read actual books” speech but, in a rare moment of parental control, I stop myself. Moralizing about the superiority of consuming a book the right way will ring hollow and induce no end of eye-rolling.

In the morning, I whine to my husband why I’m so tired and he starts in with me, that I should just have made the kid read the book. “That’s not really reading," he says. "It kind of feels like he's cheating.”

And just like that, I’m on my son’s side. He has the technology to listen to books, I argue, why not use it if that’s how he “reads”? The truth is I know better: we've had too many years of me trying to foist books on him that remain defiantly shut. Despite the fact his two parents are writers and editors and have stacks of books littering the house, the majority of his entertainment and education is found primarily on screens, with some exception. Textbooks he’ll happily consume, and an occasional magazine article, especially if it’s about physics or biology, but otherwise, the whole lot of dusty old tomes could go the way of the great library at Alexandria, with nary a teen tear shed.  

"I'm not so sure," I respond. "As long as he's enjoying to and listening to the story, why does it matter if he uses his eyes or ears?"

My husband will have none of it. "He's not exercising a part of the brain that is essential to personhood."

Personhood?!! Geesh. Anyway, yes, arguably you may gain less language acquisition since there's something about seeing a curious new word pop out as you read it over to take it in. Or that you may not marvel in the same way at breathtaking passages that are the stuff of so many dog-eared books. Or that your neurons aren't making the same connections through listening, not looking. Finally, maybe your own imagination doesn't stretch quite as far since the narrator is interpreting the author's words for you, giving voice to the Heathcliff and Jane Eyre he imagines.

But if there are studies proving reading a book by listening to a book doesn't do as much for your brain or learning, I haven't found them. Can't a person hearing a story similarily follow the plot, feel for the characters, and derive the same pleasure from a great story artfullly told - thereby gaining what a recent study found are the brain-boosting benefits of reading fiction, including flexing the imagination and empathizing with others?

Certainly, a year or two ago, I would have stood passionately on the side of the - as my son puts it - "boring" book, but recently people like author and activist Ben Foss, who talks about how technology can help different kinds of learners get an incredible education in ways they couldn't in years past, has radically altered my view.

I've also been swayed by the likes of educator Jim Trelease, who argues that no matter what age, being read aloud to holds vast benefits for kids of all ages – even grown-up kids like me who now, confession time, listen to most of her books on her runs since it's near impossible with work and kids to find time to sit down and read one of the 10 books stacked next to my bedside, a towering symbol of false hope that one day I'll make time to read them.

And if in our too busy, digitally overloaded world, the only way to actually read a great book is my son's way, to that I say, get me my headphones. It's time to read.

Related articles

What's really going on in your school's computer lab?


by Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

Cool math games.

For years, when I asked my daughters what they did in their computer classes, I would get these three words. Didn’t sound revolutionary, but it sounded okay to me. Cool (a positive attitude), math (American’s academic Achilles heel), games (okay, better games than drills, especially when it comes to math).

It took me a while before I learned that I couldn’t hear some all-important element of her answer: the capitalization. It wasn’t cool math games, but Cool Math Games – a brilliantly titled web site that seems (according to my many conversations with other parents in my district) a favorite of local computer teachers. Cool Math Games sounds awesome. And to be fair, the free site does have math (as well as other academic topics) and it does have games, but many of the games are about as mathematical as ping pong.

What’s more, the kids at my children’s schools got to choose which games they played, and pursued them randomly with no rhyme or reason. According to my daughter, the “coolest,” i.e. most popular, games involved nary a number or problem to solve, but monsters, mazes, and other physical obstacle video games which can be cognitively challenging, but don’t teach your kid fractions.

Do you know what your child actually does in her computer lab? I recently surveyed a bunch of zealous and involved parents and not one of them were sure what was going on during that all-important elective that schools spend so much money funding and so much time extolling during tours for prospective parents.

Yesterday, I drilled my daughter again. What happens during computer class? "The younger kids play video games," she told me, "but we type." Her teacher gives the kids an assignment and they type it up. Now that Common Core is requiring elementary schoolers to learn to whip out pages of text at a single sitting and new computerized Common Core-aligned tests will expect kids to instantaneously craft essays on the computer, I can see why keyboard skills are a sudden and pressing priority.

But typing and only typing? Did we really need 20 brand new Apple computers to teach fourth and fifth graders to type on a word document and let the kindergarten to third graders play Feed Fribbit Colors?

At the heart of so much spending on technology is the promise of making education smarter about enriching kids’ education with more ideas, more facts, and more technical tools. But too often the reality falls short of the dream. What’s going on at your child’s school? How often does your child get a chance to work on a computer and what exactly do they learn? The answers might surprise you – for better or for worse. What’s guaranteed is that you don’t know simply by seeing those shiny computers all lined up so beautifully.

March 05, 2014

Do parents – if they can afford it – owe their child a college education?


By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

Many people — especially the education-loving parents who find themselves reading GreatSchools — will be tempted to say yes.

After all, shouldn’t parents take their responsibility to support their children’s education seriously — not as a whim, but a sacred duty? 

Consider, then, the story of Rachel Canning, an honor student and cheerleader who broke news this week when she sued her parents to pay for her college education.  According to press reports, the senior at a Morris Catholic High School claims she was kicked out of her home when she turned 18 in October.  The teenager then moved in with her best friend, whose parents are reportedly footing the bill for the suit, which also demands financial support, her current private school tuition, and legal fees.

CBS 2 TV reported that the Superior Court Family Division Judge Peter Bogaard denied the girl’s requests for funding from her parents citing the daughter’s alleged behavior over the past year including “one or two school suspensions, drinking, losing her captaincy on the cheerleading squad and being kicked out of the campus ministry."

Her parents for their part claim that their eldest daughter was not kicked out, but left since she did not want to comply with the house rules and curfews. In a letter to friends and family (reproduced by Ashbury Park Press), the parents said their children always came first: “Whatever they wanted, they received. If it meant that we went without, then so be it.” Rachel’s lawyer told the court the teen’s home life is an “abusive unhealthy situation.”

This is an unusual case – but the transition of children into adulthood in our culture is nothing if not fraught. Teens push boundaries and lash out. Parents threaten (and sometimes act on) all sorts of crazy things in an attempt to hold those boundaries. It can get ugly even in the best of homes.  Rachel may be a normal girl who is having a very public teen temper tantrum.  Her parents may be normal parents whose admonishments that their child follow the rules or move out came astonishingly true.  

Although most of the public response to Rachel’s suit has been unmitigated disdain ("spoiled" is getting a lot of headline play), I know a woman who 20 years ago experienced a similar break with her parents.  Rebelling against her father’s strict rules, she moved into a friend’s house at 16 and was summarily cut off.  Her father, a wealthy lawyer, declined to support her college education despite her admission to an Ivy League.  My friend made it through university with a combination of jobs, grants, and loans and went on to yet another Ivy League for her PhD. In later years, she maintained a relationship with her parents, but it’s safe to say the wounds from those years never completely healed. 

We may never know the emotional truths behind this particular legal battle, but one thing is guaranteed: when private family feuds become the stuff of lawsuits, we need to scrutinize what we believe as a society.  Right now, we’re in a moment that puts huge stock in a parent’s responsibility — we want parents to step up, seize their enormous influence, and assume the role in helping their kids get ready for the world. At the same time, when taken too far, this can create perverse distortions — where a teen decides that not only is she entitled to private school tuition and a college education, but that it merits the attentions of our public courts.

Does the moment when a teen turns 18 create an ethical as well as legal line in the sand? Do kids have a legitimate case if their parents yank away promises of college support? Where do a parent’s responsibilities end and the child’s begin?

February 21, 2014

How texting keeps us close


By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Communicating with teenagers is random and mostly on their terms — which is why I love texting. Columnist Lisa Belkin called texting her “favorite parenting tool.” I agree.

Sure, texting can be intrusive and annoying in many ways. At a family reunion last year, for example, one of my sons, away from a new girlfriend for the first time, texted his way through our entire visit. And I’m sure that emoticons, LOL’s, BTW’s, and other common features of text-speak are having an erosive effect on our collective language skills. Far worse, of course, is the deadly cocktail of texting and driving.

Despite its many downsides, texting is a wonderful way to stay connected — particularly when your kids morph into teens. Texting is an invisible link to your teen that doesn’t invade their space or threaten their fledgling independence.

One of my sons is not a morning person. He waits until the very last minute to get out of bed, then dresses, eats, and brushes his teeth in a flash and dashes out the door just in time (most days) to catch the bus. We exchange few words in the morning because he’s in genuine pain and can’t tolerate chitchat. Instead, I text him a little later, when I’m on the train to work, to make sure he made the bus and give him an XO or two — virtual kisses and hugs he’d shrink from in the real world — especially before 9 a.m. He can respond to my texts or not, in his own time, and only if he feels like it. (He usually does.)

Where r u?!

Texting frees teens to venture out into the world in a relatively safe way. Belkin admits she first got hooked on texting when one of her sons was in middle school. He was out with friends one night when he texted and asked her to come get him — and to say it was her idea. A quick text allowed him to extricate himself from a scary situation. Could he have called? Maybe, but the fear of one of his peers overhearing might preclude the call. When my kids are out at night, texting permits me to check in to see where they are, and to tell them to come home when it’s getting late — all without getting in their face or embarrassing them.

The short messages also make reminders seem less naggy than they do in person. When I’m at work and need to make sure my daughter goes to her dentist appointment after school, or ensure my son goes to see the college counselor, texting is quick and efficient — and I don’t have to listen to their whining. (I do receive text whines, of course, but “Bleh!” and “Ugh I really really really really really really don’t want to go” are easier to tolerate and sometimes even funny, IMHO.)

Only connect

Beside all the practical uses, texting is a quick, painless way for teens to reach out in those precious moments when they feel like communicating — when they get an A on a difficult test, for example, or they’re staying at a friend’s house and can’t sleep.

As Belkin observes, texting “makes life a conversation, not an appointment, one that knits us together, loosely but definitely.” My sister told me recently that she was out hiking when she received this question via text from her son: “What would you prefer: a dysfunctional republic or a government headed by a benevolent dictator?” The question wasn’t entirely out of the blue: her son, a political science major who is obsessed with politics, is disheartened by the paralysis in Washington, and he and his parents discuss the issue often. He was texting to carry on the dialogue, picking up the conversation where it left off.

That’s why I love texting. Whether the message is philosophical or practical, charged or banal, texting provides a way to keep the conversation going — a way to be together, even when you’re apart.

Those standardized tests American parents love to hate? Maybe we love them, after all.

Adults-raising-handsBy Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

“How will we know how our kids are doing without the state tests?” asks the woman up front.

Wearing a purple batik blouse, black suit pants, long graying hair pulled into a messy twist – and though I failed to check, undoubtedly Birks, Toms, or clogs – she’s the sort of hyper-involved, left-leaning parent I’ve come to expect ‘round these parts. We’re a gluten-free scone’s throw from Berkeley, after all.

To put it mildly, this is not a crowd where I expect to hear distress over lack of testing. And yet the other parents are nodding. They agree: without tests, how will they know whether their children – and the schools – are making progress? How soon till the tests begin again? Will there be other measures? The speaker tries to reassure the angst-ridden moms and dads by promising that, even though California won't be testing kids for one year as schools transition to the Common Core Standards, district-mandated standardized tests will still happen. My sense is that this answer seems like nothing more than a Band-Aid to these anxious parents.

Something we love to hate…

For a long, long time, “standardized testing” was uttered like a four-letter word in many parts of the country. The trio of policy maker (George W. Bush), policy (NCLB), and effect (mandated standardized tests) were all regularly muttered as epithets. In the press, the bad rap hasn’t dissipated with time. Education thought leaders and researchers continue to assail the lesser points of testing. In their recent New York Times Magazine article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman wrote: “Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. … even third graders feel as if they are on trial.” Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote a column enumerating the “Five absurdities about high-stakes standardized tests.” Strauss and others have written about teachers, principals, and parents despising these tests – and the detriment to kids, teachers, schools, and education.

Given our somewhat tortured relationship with standardized tests – tainted as they are by NCLB, cheating teachers, unfair teacher evaluations, and childhood misery – you’d think that now that we’re throwing NCLB out, we’d also be chucking standardized tests and letting the door hit them on their way out. Not so. Though 42 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico have NCLB waivers, none are getting rid of testing. As the majority of states move toward Common Core, the only discussions about testing seem to be centered around which new tests the state will use, new question formats, and using technology to take tests – not doing away with testing. I have been pondering this head-scratcher silently… and then I attended this Oakland school district conference for parents about the Common Core. The news that California schools are skipping standardized tests to give educators and students time to adapt to Common Core hasn’t triggered mass celebrations (well, maybe among teachers, which is another story, but not among parents). The mother’s concern over missed testing floored me. Those tests we love to hate - could some people secretly appreciate them now?

…but actually love?

As an education writer, I’m skeptical about standardized tests using poorly thought-out questions and unfair access issues when it comes to technology. But I am nodding right along with the crowd, fairly convinced the batik-clad mom’s got a point. Without the tests: how will we know how well schools are teaching Common Core?

Turns out this mom - and this crowd of parents - are not alone in their appreciation of standardized tests. A recent poll reflects this attitude shift among parents. Last summer, 1,025 American parents of K-12 children answered a series of questions about education. The nationally representative AP-NORC poll shows a majority of parents view standardized tests as helpful. A full 75 percent of parents say standardized tests are a solid measure of their children's abilities, and 69 percent say standardized tests are a good measure of their schools' quality. Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to value the benchmarking these scores afford us. Sure, there are still vehement test haters and lovers. But for the masses who lean less passionately one way or the other, this is more than just acceptance of a necessary evil. It smells like test appreciation.

January 24, 2014

What’s the most important grade of all?


 By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

When my oldest son entered preschool, his social skills were, to put it kindly, underdeveloped. He has a forceful personality and at home he only had to contend with doting parents and a toddler brother who was happy to let him create all the games and play the starring roles. He was a little bossy and very stubborn;  he wore a Spiderman costume and thundered around the house, brandishing sticks and other weapon-like items at pets, babies, and other innocent bystanders. 

At preschool, he loved every day and came home exhausted from racing in the yard, playing dress-up, painting, listening to stories, and messing around in mud and sand and tubs of flour. He also learned how to take turns and listen to other kids, to wait for the swing, to share toys and sit still (sort of) during circle time. When he graduated from preschool,  he could read just a little and he wrote his name in a highly eccentric fashion, but in all the ways that mattered, he was ready for kindergarten.

Already behind on the first day of school

Many families in the U.S. aren’t as lucky. From 2009 to 2011, more than half of 3- and 4- year-olds in the U.S. weren’t enrolled in preschool, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and when they  show up at kindergarten they’re already behind. 

Our understanding of the brain has increased exponentially in recent years and the latest research underscores the powerful effect of early experiences and stimulation on the growing brain.  A quality preschool teaches kids valuable cognitive, emotional, and executive functioning skills at a crucial time in brain development.   (Learn more about what constitutes a quality preschool.)

Benefits go on and on...

Children who attend preschool do better in kindergarten than those who don't but that’s not all: the positive effects of preschool go on and on.  As Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children told C-Span, “[Preschool] helps determine the trajectory of success they will have later on."

Another recent study found that attending a quality preschool boosted test performance for low-income children well into middle school; researchers also found evidence linking preschool attendance to higher rates of parent involvement and maternal employment.  A third, long term study of children who attended an early education program in Chicago found that 25 years later, participants stayed in school longer and had a higher standard of living, as well as lower rates of crime and drug use, than a control group.

Experts say that low-income children benefit most from preschool, but there are obvious advantages  for all kids, including the valuable social-emotional skills that helped civilize my child.

An education fix that people actually agree on

There isn’t a lot of consensus out there about how to fix our struggling education system, but there is astonishingly little disagreement about the value of preschool. The Obama Administration vigorously supports it, and city leaders in San Antonio,  New York, and other major cities are forging ahead with universal preschool proposals of their own.

What’s more, 30 states and the District of Columbia increased their preschool funding last year, according to Education Week some by as much as 20 percent.

To be sure, the news isn’t all good. A study just released by the New America Foundation  found that, while there have been gains in some areas, access to early education is still spotty around the country. The report also cites this disturbing stat: over 48 percent of all public school children in the U.S. now qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

Good beginnings

One more important benefit to consider when it comes to preschool: it educates parents as well as kids. For one thing, it provides the first of many lessons in letting go. On my son’s first day of preschool, I hugged him goodbye and he raced off to join a gang of boys chasing each other around the play structure. As I watched him speed off without looking back, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be there if he got hurt, or if someone said something mean. This realization stopped me cold and I might not have left at all if the preschool director, who had an unnerving ability to read minds, hadn’t told me gently but firmly, “He’ll be fine.” She was right then, and she’s still right, all these years later, as my son gets ready to head off to college. And it all started in preschool.


  • Welcome to The GreatSchools Blogs, your official place for all things GreatSchools.

    GreatSchools is an independent, nonprofit organization that empowers and inspires parents to participate in their children's development and educational success.

Subscribe to the GreatSchools Blog

Bookmark and Share

April 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30