Monday, August 29, 2011

Parent Reform

If schools, faculty and/or their unions, if government cannot solve the myriad of issues and problems in public education, then who can? I think we can. We have to reform our thoughts about education and what having a good education means. We have to make sure education is accessible to our children and that it is accessible to us. Education has been elevated to a point where only experts have a say, even teachers are being left out of the loop. There are many things happening around the world that should outrage us, but education is something that we can tangibly influence.

We need to join forces with teachers and demand very specific changes. We need to let the government know that they will not get away with promoting policies that hinder the learning environment of our children and then blame dedicated teachers when those ridiculous policies fail. We, unlike politicians cannot afford to remain silent. We must rock the boat.

We must engage and commit to our children's education as if their very lives depended on it, because it may well be true. We can start small. A ripple that gathers momentum is all we need. Here are my suggestions:

1. Start where you are. If you are pregnant, educate yourself about your child's development. Start reading aloud to your baby. If your child is older, find out how he's doing, physically, cognitively, emotionally. Don't panic if your child is lagging in any one area. There are differences in the rates of development, but knowing where your child is will help you engage him and thrive. Make sure you are establishing good habits in your child. Healthy foods, well baby visits, fresh air. These things give your child every advantage in growing up happy and healthy.

2. Get yourself ready for school. Be an informed parent. What are your child's strengths and weaknesses? How have you helped your child in the weak areas? How are you encouraging their gifts/strengths? What help would you like from his teachers? This information should come from you. Don't wait until a teacher points out a problem. Be proactive and engaged. Speak with your child's teacher often. Become antiquated with the school staff. Join the PTA/PTO.

3. Learn to deal kindly and effectively with a difficult teacher. Do not allow yourself to be bullied by teachers, office staff or the principal. You know your child better than anyone else. Take control and be a decision maker. Speak your truth clearly, calmly and with conviction. If there is an on going problem, make sure to document EVERYTHING. Every conversation, meeting, conference should be documented. Be an advocate for your child.

I recall years ago and incident with my oldest son. He had heart surgery when he was eight and as a result of that he needed to take antibiotics before every dental appointment. I made his appointments well in advance because I also schedule one with his pediatrician, so I could get the prescription for the antibiotics. So in July, I called to schedule an appointment for August. Turns out the dentist was going to be on vacation the entire month of August, so we scheduled for mid September. The day of his appointment I dropped my son off at school at 11:00 am. I was met by a very rude and somewhat angry Vice Principal who proceeded to reprimand me for bringing my son late on a TEST DAY! We had the following exchange:

"Mrs. Chacon, are you aware the today is a TEST DAY?"
"I am."
"You have brought your son to school late!"
"I have."
"Now, he'll have to make up his test!"
"He will."

She sputtered and turned around and walked away from me. She never once showed concerned or asked why he was late. Her concern was the testing. Testing, in my book, gauges where the child is at the moment. It may or may not be indicative of any future results on the child's abilities or knowledge of a particular subject. I knew where my son what academically. I knew where he was physically and spiritually. At that moment his health was more important to me that his test scores. Knowing these things gave me the strength to stand my ground.

Knowing where you child is, where you want him to go, knowing what his strengths and weakness are will help you stand strong in your convictions and will help you be an advocate for your child. Once we start to speak out. Once we start pointing out what our children need, the changes will happen. They are starting to happen with school lunches. Next on the agenda, class sizes. Send a message to congress and the Secretary of Education that class sizes do matter. Complain clearly and loudly at PTA meeting, to school boards, to local governments, to the media, to the state government and to the federal government.

Keep in mind, that no one gave women the right to vote. Women had to demand it at a great sacrifice. One hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, people had to protest loudly and with great peril to demand protection of their civil rights. The difficult tasks are never voluntarily solved by government, they are solved by the concerned citizens who sometimes sacrifice life and limb to insure a better life for future generations. That is what our children are demanding of us. Let the great Parent Reform begin.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Government Reform

Government does not trust parents to raise their children. Anyone in government would argue that this is not true, but I see it everywhere. It's not just government, it's teachers, business, therapists etc. We have a culture of professionals that know more, know better, know the answers and we the parents are left a bit flummoxed as to how to raise our kids. Government tries it's darnest to help, to close the gap between the have's and the have nots, but they fail to see many things. First, how are the have's and have nots defined? Is it strictly socioeconomic or are there other conditions factored in? WARNING: I'm about to get very honest and not at all politically correct. The government tries to help but in essence creates some unintended consequences. One of the first problems created by this atmosphere of professionals and government programs is that it undermines parents and families. I have spoken with several young unwed mothers who have very honestly told me that they live with their child's father but that there are no plans to get married because the government gives unwed mothers so much help in the form of money, free programs etc., that it doesn't financially behoove them to get married. Granted a few mother's is not a scientific study, but I bet I'm not too far off the mark in saying that government programs are hindering the creation of families and not aiding them. In trying to help young mother's get a head start the government programs are actually keeping them in poverty, both financially and spiritually, because it's hindering their pursuit of a better life. The life the government provides is "good enough", certainly too good to try a something different.

So government involvement in schools is no different. Government officials try, they try so hard to close the gap between the rich and the poor. They try to create programs that "will leave no child behind", yet instead of raising the bar across the board the programs have widen the gap and in the worst case scenarios they have lower the performance across the board. After a decade of NCLB, we still have failing schools, we still have children who do not meet standards, we have disgruntled (and rightly so) teachers and we have frustrated parents.

Government claims to have the child's best interest in mind. I don't believe it. I think even the best intentioned politician ultimately has his/her career front and center. They will try to do right by the children, but only so long as it doesn't hurt their career. They talk themselves into believing that if they lose their seat, they won't be able to help out during the next term. They remain silent because they want their voice to be heard. Unions claim to have the best interest of children in mind, and perhaps they come a little closer to the mark. They after all are the voice of the dedicated teachers that struggle to teach the lowliest among us. However, the teachers are not our children. When unions rail against change, any change because it could hindered the teacher's employment or benefits no matter how worthy the cause, it is still not a concern for our children. Teacher's themselves are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are in the front line dealing with the children they serve, the obnoxious parents, the overbearing administration. They are in constant flux year in and year out regarding their employment, all the while concerned with the livelihood of their own families. Really it's so much that any true concern for the children is trumped by all the other things going on.

Which brings me to the parent. We are the only ones who can truly have our own children's best interest in mind, but the government can't trust us. I can't say that I can really blame them. I too often see why they feel a need to step in. I have often tried to step in myself and "help" a parent who I think is struggling. My eagerness to help is rarely met with enthusiasm or gratitude. Usually my help is met with resistance, indignation and hostility. I however, unlike the government am not offering money or free programs, so my help is usually rejected. So what is a government to do when dealing with such vast difference in attitudes, socioeconomic levels, religious differences, cultural differences etc? Well I think they can fearlessly open the gates of choice. I know that this is quite controversial. Charter schools, vouchers, online learning, private schools, public schools, special programs, continuation school, evening classes, why not just offer it all up as the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of our children. Really give parents a choice and a voice on how their children will be educated. Give parents back the responsibility of raising their kids. What will happen to schools and teachers if the flood gates of education are opened wide? You know, my concern is MY children and THEIR future. I'm sure that well educated teachers will figure it out, isn't that ultimately when a good education is useful?

Stay tuned for the next post: Parent Reform

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

School Reform

My head is spinning. I've been on Twitter. You should see the mess over there regarding school reform. It's ugly. School reformers are accusing unions who are accusing politicians who are attacking teachers who are pointing fingers at reformers! Geez. I just keep wondering where all the parents are in this discourse. Sure there is a group that has the name parent in it, but I doubt that any parents in that group have kids in failing schools because they are talking about all the same things that have absolutely nothing to do with kids or the REAL problem with education. The fact is no one can even agree to what the real problem is. Well lucky for all of you, I've given this a lot of thought. I will now share my wisdom with you all and tell you what the REAL problem in public education is. Ready?

It's the MONEY. It's not even a lack of money, it's just the money. First thing relating to money is the huge gap in education among the affluent and the poor. Sure, the affluent have money and the poor don't. True, but public education is for EVERYONE regardless of income, social status, geographical location. In essence a child in Holmby Hills should be getting the same education as the children of Appalachia. We know this is not happening because schools receive funding from many different sources including federal, state and city and from home owner taxes. So the school in cities that are dying like Cleveland,Ohio are not going to have the same kind of money as the school in Lake Oswego, Oregon. That is just one money factor, but it's a big one.

So I ask myself, instead of continuing to aggravate the problem, why isn't the federal government the sole funding agency for schools across America? If the federal government gave $10,000 per child to very household in America for the sole purposes of educating the child in that household it would alleviate all this finger pointing and constant bickering. Of course the federal government won't do that, because it does not trust parents to raise their own children. It has no problem trusting our children to corporations (Hi Microsoft!) or to experts (Greetings, Mr. Duncan), but to parents, NEVER!

I'm actually liking this idea the more I write about it. (Warning this post is taking of on it's own stop...common sense!) I'm going to let this sink in for a bit before I write more. I promise that come next month, I'll be writing about a lot more fun stuff like curriculum and projects and stories. Until then bear with me while I get my thoughts in order.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The First Five

When I lived in California they had these lovely commercials on television touting the importance of the first five years of a child's life. They had a beautiful baby girl in a high chair and grandma and grandpa played peek-a-boo with her. Another showed a baby boy and his young mother playing with some plastic rings. Mom was giving him one ring at a time and telling him the color of each ring. Yes, the first five years of a child's life are important.

Fast forward to seven years later. It's 2011 and the importance of the first five years has been hijacked by politicians, educational reformers, early childhood "specialists" and other special interest groups including the media and it has become a mess! This is our wake up call parents! It's time to take back your children from the clutches of well meaning, but self interested "experts."

Yes, the first five years of a child's life are crucial. Make no mistake about it. However, unless the child has experienced some deep personal trauma (and I'll come back to what those may be.) the five years following the first five and the five years after that also play a crucial role in the child's intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual development. So if you child is not reading by kindergarten don't feel like all hope is lost. If you child has chicken McNuggets on occasion, it will not lead to childhood obesity. If your child is not enrolled in Karate classes, she may still be able to work her way up to a black belt before her retirement age. I wanted to clarify that, because from all the hype and hoopla surrounding first five, you'd think you may as well give up if your child is not rolling over at the prescribed moment the chart says they should.

What is really, really crucial in the child's first five years is what educational and early childhood "experts" usually fail to mention, the child's relationship with his mother. The mother/child bond is more important than reading to your child (and I'm all about reading, so I don't say that lightly.), it's more important than the child's relationship to any other person, including dad, and the grandparents. There is a bond that should occur while the child is developing in the womb that is the catalyst to all future learning. If a child and mother have properly bonded while the child was in utero, that child has a pretty good chance at life. If that bond is properly nurtured by the mother once the child is born, that child has an even better chance at a good life. If that child continues to thrive and bond with other important people in his life, such as his dad, his grandparents and siblings, then chances are that child will grow emotional, intellectual, physically and spiritually just the way nature meant him to.

Once those things are in motion, you cannot just start ignoring the child, and it would be pretty hard to do anyway. Once an action has been put in motion it will gain momentum and it will grow and thrive. A child that is loved will learn. A child that is learning will continue to learn etc. In fact, in order to stop the momentum something pretty huge would have to happen. Death, drugs, physical traumas, abuse of any kind, bullying, are all example of things that can stop that momentum in it's track and the child may stop learning, growing and thriving.

So the first five years of a child's life are important, but even more important are the first nine months that child spends in his mother's womb and then all the years that follow those first five are important because a child is a person at every age and every moment is precious and that cannot be measured by any type of assessment test. So if you choose to stay home with your child and not send him to preschool, good for you. You cannot give a child a more precious gift than setting a healthy foundation on which he will learn and thrive. If your child cannot count to 100 by the time he goes to kinder, ask yourself this, what could he possibly use that information for anyway? It's okay, your child will learn to count to 100 when he realizes that 100 pennies make up a dollar. Ignore the hoopla, it'll just make a good mother crazy!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Child Can't Read or Write!

There is such a push for young children to excel academically. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting your child to do well, but what happens when the expectations become skewed and we start expecting more and more from younger and younger children?

The biggest push seems to be in the area of reading and writing. My four year old can write his name! A lot of parents use this line to introduce me to their child. "Oh wonderful," I say, "Now we are going to make sure that those little muscles in your little hands grow nice and strong so you can write for rest of your life!" We make those muscles strong by making sure the child has access to lots of play dough, we sew to build those fine motor skills, we knead bread for large muscle development, we color pictures big and small. Each activity helps to develop and strengthen a set a muscles that the child will need to write. As for any building project you must lay the foundation before erecting the building or your building will eventually crumble.

I also encounter wonderful parents with concerns that their 5 year old is not yet reading. There are several important things to keep in mind that are very important and will lead children to a love of reading. Isn't this the basis for reading to really gain a love of the written word?

1. Make sure that your child sees you reading. This is even more important than reading to your child! A study that was published in The Times about 8 years ago determined that children who had parents who read and who had books and reading materials at home were better readers than those who's parents rarely picked up a book. I would agree that there may be other factors involved that were not taken into consideration such as parents who read are more likely to read to their children, but what this study really brings home is that children model their parents behavior. We are our children's first and most important teacher.

2. Read to your child. It's never too early to start. Read to your child before he is born. Tell him stories, sing songs, play pat-a-cake, all these things help make neurological connections that will lead to your child's reading success.

3. Go on a sign hunt. Children as young as two or three will recognize symbols even before they learn to decipher written language. This is an important pre-reading skill. My nephew was very young and his dad worked for the corporate offices for Ralphs grocery store. As we drove by a Ford dealer my nephew pointed to the sign and said, "Daddy work!" I was a bit confused because his dad worked for Ralphs not Ford. Then I realized that both logos were ovals and the fonts used in the words were similar. He actually made such an exciting pre-reading leap! He was noticing similarities, later he would go on to notice differences such as color and letters.

4. Teach your child the letter sounds. This is more important than knowing the letter names! So often I hear that very young children know their ABC's. Usually these kids know the song, but don't recognize the letters. Knowing the song is fun, knowing the letter sounds is awesome! Ah-ah-apple, Bb- Bb-Ball. Kk-Kk-Cat and Dd-Dd-Doll, Eh-eh-egg, Ff-Ff-Fan, Gg-Gg-Goat and Hh-Hh-Hand...

5. Relax. Know sit back and relax a bit. Some children learn to read early, some children learn to read later. Unless there is a problem such as dyslexia, your child will need you to lay the foundation and be encouraging, that's it. You need to trust that they have the skills they need to read. I know schools put a huge emphasis on learning to read by a certain age or your child will FALL BEHIND! I don't agree. Some kids don't learn to read until age 8 and within a few months are reading at or beyond their grade level.

6. Be attentive. I know this seems like the opposite of relax, but it isn't. What I'm asking here is for you to be attentive to your instincts. If your gut feeling is telling you there is a problem, then the sooner you address it the better it will be for your child. However, four years is early to be concerning yourself with the fact that your child cannot read, again unless you know of some physical or psychological reason to be concerned.

7. Trust. Doing all of the above sets the foundation, now trust that your child will learn. I know I already mentioned it, but it's so important I want to remind to trust the process.

There are lots of early intervention programs and while they made have their place, most kids just need exposure and time and they will learn to read on their own. Keep in mind that experts like to make early predictions on a child's future success based on early performance indicators. I find this ludicrous and insulting. I know of many successful adults who learned to read later in life. For long list, check here. Now have fun and go relax with a good book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Technology and the Child

Sometimes there is just so much information that it's hard to make heads or tails of it. Which brings me to a debate we've been having at a national level. Technology and the evils it brings to the minds of children. Trust me I've read all the debates. While I don't hold degrees in psychology or physiology, I am a mother of four, and by goodness that makes me an expert! So here is my take on the issue.

Television and video games are not intrinsically evil. I will note that there is very little quality programing for children on television. You as the parent should choose wisely what your child watches. Children watching television should be the exception, not the rule, simply because there are so many other things that children could be and should be doing. They could be like playing outside, which will build them up physically. It will build their self-esteem and will contribute to building social connections. They could be playing an instrument or learning how to play one. They could be learning to sew or cook or bake. All of these are wonderful contributions that can be made to society once they are adults. Life is so much richer, exciting and varied than anything that can be offered by sitting passively watching television. So why even offer it as an option? Well, sometimes there are programs worth watching. Sometimes you may want to watch something that they would enjoy too. So, if your child watches an hour or two of television a week I would argue that no long term harm will be done.

Video games are another hot topic issue and again as a parent you should have and use your discretion. Video games can be quite violent and most are not appropriate for young children. The truth of the matter is that the future has arrived and like driving a car or anything else we take for granted, computers and their programs will be second nature for our children. Video games like Zelda, take kids on a journey where they have to solve problems to get to another level. Think of them like computerized chess games. As long as they are age appropriate and limited, I think video games are fine.

If I had to give parents tips it would be to parent your child when it comes to television and video games. Use television and video games to teach your child something worthwhile. For instance, when friends are over, the video games and t.v. are turned off because that face to face interaction with a friend is so much more rewarding than playing video games or watching t.v. People, school and chores come before any electronic devices can be turned on. If you notice a change in your child's attitude after he has played video games or watched television, simply stop the use of them.

So often I hear parents complain about how much their kids play video games or watch television, only to find out that they have a console or a t.v. in their room! Get it out of there. Under no circumstances is it appropriate for young children to be playing video games or watching t.v. alone in his room. This is not something they should be regulating. Remember that you pass along values by the things you do and by the things you allow your child to do. Video Games and television are forms of entertainment. Do you believe that it's healthy for your child to be entertained 24/7? Do you want your child to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted and a contributing member of society? Well then, there you have it. Limit and supervise the use of television and video games for young kids. It's not a scientific analysis, but it makes sense.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stop, Listen and Acknowledge

What is a broken toy compared to your car breaking down the morning of your big interview? What is a scraped knee compared to a loved one fighting cancer? What is the big deal of not taking your child to have ice cream as promised compared to having a credit line you were counting on revoked? We work, while our children play. We know a real heartbreak feels differently than a scraped knee...or does it? Have you ever felt guilty because you were sad over something that seemed trivial compared to the suffering of others? Did it make you feel any less sad?

It's almost easy for us to dismiss our children's fears, their concern or their sadness. Rather than dismiss these, I would urge you (and many times, myself) to stop, listen and acknowledge. When we stop and listen, we are giving the child his place in the world. We are telling them that they are worthy of our time and our attention. When we acknowledge the child's concern we are simply telling letting them know that we hear them. We don't have to agree or solve what's going on, sometimes we can't solve it. We are simply letting them know that their concern has been noted.

Learning takes place at every moment of life. There are things that no matter how school boards try to include them in the curriculum, they cannot be taught in isolation. Self-esteem is not a one semester course, inclusion cannot be isolated to a class, respect for others grows from feelings that can only be self-regulated, not teacher directed. Think of all a child learns when we simply stop, listen and acknowledge. They are learning the they are important and worthy. They model our behavior towards others. They develop a deep reverence for people's opinions and feelings even if they don't agree with them.

I've often said that the most important life lessons rarely take place in the classroom. They take place while living our lives. When we teach by example, the lessons tend to stick.