We’re Back (and in the news) Just in Time for Back-to-School: Check Out Our Article In the Huffington Post

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Whether you’re starting middle school or your sophomore year at college, the phrase “back to school” is laden with anxiety. The first word of the phrase, “back,” connotes a return, the forceful act of embracing routine. Fresh starts, clean slates — all of these ideas are awesome in theory, but in practice, take effort. It’s one thing to be fresh and clean, and a whole other to stay fresh and clean. So much of the back to school anxiety comes from the pressure to keep up the momentum that comes with the new school year, so full of potential. It can be a time for growth, which also presents students with its antithesis — the fear of failure. (Failing can actually make you stronger; it’s fearing failure that trips us up.)

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So how to deal with school anxiety? Do homework! The very root of school anxiety can be solved by taking a proactive stance in the most simple way. By turning homework into an exercise to actively fight anxiety, students can not only find academic success, but also personal growth and self-determination. So many of my students have a hard time standing in their own accomplishments because they put intolerable pressure on themselves to succeed. When they achieve a goal they feel only a temporary sense of relief, rather than pride. Anxiety is such a terrible monster because it’s always lurking beneath the surface, poised to disrupt the upward flow of progression at any time.

That’s why time management remains a steadfast homework skill. By breaking down work into manageable tasks, students teach themselves how to structure time. I tell my students as they are reading a passage or analyzing research, to get a sense of what ten minutes feels like doing this type of thinking. When you continue this work for, say, 30 minutes, what does that feel like? Being mindful of learning skills punctuates the process in a way that reduces anxiety by increasing the student’s sense of agency. So many times, doing the work takes much less time than you anticipate it will — because avoidance is a form of anxiety.

And, guess what? There’s an app for that. Digital flashcards like gFlash+ or note-taking apps like Notability and Papyrus are available for the tech-savvy student (or child of tech-savvy parents) to accommodate the lives of tweens and teens who get a sense of ease and comfortability with technology. If they’re peer-sharing information via digital media, who cares, as long as learning is taking place.

But old school egg timers work just as well. Not all students are tech savvy, and they’re doing just fine. Tried and true learning practices don’t rely on innovative gimmicks. When a student sets a time limit to achieve a certain task, and then he or she reaches that goal, there is a momentary feeling of success. Students should take these moments as sparks of positive reinforcement to keep moving forward.

Students should work at a designated work space while doing homework.Ideally, this is any place but the bed. Education pioneers like Maria Montessori have documented the value environment plays in learning. Students should assess what environmental factors determine optimal learning, by taking a learning-style quiz.

To work efficiently, schedule breaks into a homework plan. Balance is key, and knowing there is a limit to time spent on homework is essential. Just as important is penciled-in relaxation time, which usually comes upon completing a task. Parents should try as hard as possible to let students take homework plans into their own hands. Study plans build agency, but only when they come from the students themselves.

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[Students Only: Get Organized a.k.a. Spring Cleaning]

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You might be tempted to roll your eyes when your parents tell you to clean your room — but the truth is, chaos breeds chaos, and order breeds clarity. Having a clean and clutter-free study space will help you focus (I could cite studies here, but it’s logical, right?)

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At the same time, keeping track of assignments, organizing notes, filing old papers, quizzes, and tests, lining up textbooks, and cleaning out your schoolbag(s) has many practical purposes:

  • You will feel more in control of your schoolwork. Greater agency will lead to empowered learning.
  • If you are behind on assignments, you will know exactly what assignments you are behind on. Only then can you develop a plan for catching up. Organizing your work is the first step in catching up if you are behind.
  • Organizing is a practical results-oriented task. There will be  direct, positive results from organizing your work. VOILA! Guaranteed satisfaction. Start small and develop your own system. Do what works for you. This small step will propel you forward.
  • If your school is tech-friendly, chances are your assignments are on your computer: they can be organized on a folder (or one of many) or an online system. I’ve heard horror stories of computer crashes, deleted files, viruses, and mysterious tech versions of the dog eating your homework. So, back up your work. Seriously. Get a flash drive for each subject. Or, print out assignments (prompts and your work) and keep them in a binder. Call me old-fashioned, but holding your work in your hands can often give you a sense of pride in your efforts and achievements.

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  • Organizing can help you celebrate your accomplishments. Stop and re-read your teacher’s comments on that fantastic history paper. Reflect on what made your paper so darn good. Then file away your paper (where you can find and access it), to give it the respect it deserves: hey, it’s the product of your hard work. You deserve to pat yourself on the back.
  • Organizing can also help you face your disappointments. If a grade on your algebra test has you feeling down, burying that test in your school bag isn’t going to help matters. In fact, pretending that no-so-terrific test doesn’t exist will most likely add to your shame and embarrassment about a not-so-terrific grade. You have to get over it. Look over your mistakes with your teacher or tutor and see where you went wrong. Make corrections whether you get credit for them or not. Then file that test away as well. We all have things in our “binders of life” that we’re not so proud of, but facing them makes us brave and ready to take on the next challenge.
  • It’s really not that hard to get organized. In fact, you can make the experience pleasant by doing it with a friend, blasting your favorite music, or enjoying some much needed time alone. What makes getting organized difficult is when we procrastinate getting organized. Avoidance is a form of anxiety. But we can easily tackle that nagging dread by just doing it. Trust me, this is a relatively painless exercise that can garner positive results.
  • Organize regularly. The key to being organized is to do it consistently.

Personal Qualities Not Measured By Tests: Thank You, Maria Montessori

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Maria Montessori, the educator, physician, innovator, feminist, and mother of the Montessori child-centered method of education is an influence on my holistic approach to learning. One rudimentary Montessori philosophy includes creating a learning environment that stimulates active learning (for more on active listening click here) and community building. How do you do this? As parents, you might think this means covering your child’s walls with posters of multiplication tables or the quadratic formula. Sure, that might be helpful, but that’s not exactly what Dr. Montessori had in mind. To create an environment that stimulates active learning, tap into your child’s interests. Find ways to use those interests (dinosaurs, ballet, rap music, photography, gardening, drawing) as motivating forces. Inquisitiveness breeds empowerment, and the more a child can discover the interconnectedness of the world, the more apt he or she will want to engage with it in a meaningful way. In practical terms, create a safe, empowering, and, yes, “cool” study environment for your child, whether he or she is 6 or 16. Trust me, even adolescents will appreciate the gesture, (though they might have more of a say into creating a study space than a six-year-old).

As test season is upon us, here are a couple of principles to bear in mind: these are principles that are valuable human qualities that standardized tests do not measure. Fill your child’s study space with reminders of these qualities. Perhaps you can create a craft project with your child or use refrigerator magnets to spell out these words to remind young people that the following qualities have just as much value (if not more) than the SAT word of the day:

CREATIVITY, CRITICAL THINKING, RESILIENCE, PERSISTENCE, HUMOR, EMPATHY, SPONTANEITY, RESOURCEFULNESS, CURIOSITY, MOTIVATION, RELIABILITY, LEADERSHIP, ENTHUSIASM, SENSE OF WONDER, HUMILITY 

Cartoon by Dave Walker

Cartoon by Dave Walker

If you need to speak your child’s language, add a hashtag. #justdoit and remember the power of words (hey, I still love encouraging texts from my parents).  These signifiers, or reminders, will reinforce how much you believe in your child or adolescent, who has so much to offer the world.

 

 

 

SAT Study Guides: Apps & One Cool Book

Acing the SAT … there’s an app for that. No, really, College Board has a question of the day Twitter account you call follow to give your social media a little more substance.

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Available on iTunes, is a new SAT Math app by Michael DeRosa featuring digital flashcards that focus on learning concepts rather than memorizing information. Find over 2,600 question combinations here.

Also available on iTunes, is the English vocabulary app by ExamBusters with over 1,000 common SAT words. Find synonyms, antonyms, sample sentences and parts of speech.

But are apps as effective as taking pen to paper? My two-cents, you want to overload your brain with as many ways to study and learn information as possible. If you’re an auditory learner, apps may be the way to go (in addition to taking as many practice tests as possible, and working with a tutor). If you are a tactile learner, perhaps you might want to make your own flashcards. Take my learning style quiz and figure out what kind of learner you are. You can never be too prepared for standardized tests, and although you may dread studying, the more prepared you are, the less you will experience anxiety. Remember, avoidance is a form of anxiety, so the more you procrastinate and put off studying, the more anxious you are making yourself. If apps can help you get into the study groove, why not give them a try? But don’t rely on them.

I also recommend this cool not-your-everyday SAT study guide, written by my colleague, writer, former tutor, and Bonobo enthusiast, Elliot Schrefer, Hack The SAT for strategies and sneaky shortcuts on how to up your score. 51WrSpr2Q0L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

 

UPCOMING SAT TEST DATES: March 8 and  May 3, 2014 Register Now!  

[Students Only] Active Listening Skills

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Active listening is one of those study skills that students actually use in everyday life. Active listening takes practice, discipline, and commitment. And, the rewards pay off, and not just the next time there’s a pop quiz. Students who are able to actively listen in class feel more engaged, less distracted, retain more information, and enjoy the classroom experience more so than students who just let information go in one ear, out the other. We all know that class is much less boring when you’re an active participant. Hey, we all love to hear ourselves speak, right? As an active listener, you are also hearing yourself think.

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Tips For Active Listening:

  • Summarize nuggets of information as they are presented to you.
  • If you are having trouble summarizing information, perhaps you need to a clarification. If so, jump in with a question, or jot one down until the speaker breaks.
  • Take notes: bullet points are fine. Keywords or key phrases work as well
  • Ask yourself: is this information a main idea? Is it a fact? A detail? An inferential thought? As you categorize information, you take the first step in really learning it.
  • Apply the nugget of information to another scenario. Does the idea translate?
  • Try to predict what the speaker is going to say next, but don’t go too far ahead, just far enough to come up with the next step in the argument.
  • Resist the temptation to interrupt the speaker. Anticipate pauses and then ask a question or make a comment.
  • Reflect personally on each nugget of information.
  • Engage in non-verbal cues like eye contact, nodding, smiling at the speaker.
  • Be in the moment. Mindfulness is key to being an active listener. If you are emotionally, physically, or mentally preoccupied, it will be difficult for you to actively listen.
  • Assign value to what you are listening to. Remember, you are in control.

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The Value of Resilience

One of the most important skills we can teach our children is the value of resilience. What exactly is resilience? According to psychologists, some of the factors that make someone resilient include a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after a misfortune, blessed with such an outlook, resilient people are able to change course and soldier on. (Psychology Today) We all experience setbacks, disappoints, and failures — perceived or real. Resilience is the quality to rise up and come back more determined than ever.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat the reality of our culture today. Kids (children and teens) must confront myriad stressors: at home, in school, in their social lives, from the media, and most of all from themselves. And you can bet they are internalizing these pressures to be “perfect,” regardless of how amazing we tell them they are. We live in a culture of comparison, where at every turn we seem to measure success by achievements. Now, I’m not saying that ambition is a negative thing. By all means, we want our children to  set high standards for themselves and do everything possible to reach those goals. But as parents and educators, it is tantamount to give young people tools to cope with disappointment (when they can’t meet their goals, or if meeting their goals does not give them the pay-off they imagined). Expectations are suburb: but children need strategies to manage expectations lest they become all-consuming. Everyone faces challenges that are out of our control, but the trick is to reclaim agency and build a strong sense of internal character.

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Here are some ideas and tips on how to build resilience in your child or teen at home and at school. I can’t think of a better way to start off the New Year!

  • Encourage Mentoring Relationships. Help your child to develop a mentoring relationship with an adult who is outside of your immediate family. This will build positive connectedness with the world and a vision of the world as a place for growth and opportunity.
  • Build A Sense of Agency. The more a child feels in control of his or her actions, the more he or she will build a sense of internal control, even in a world where ultimate control is an illusion. By making decisions on their own, children will understand the nature of consequences — positive and negative, and little by little they will develop a sense of agency.
  • Teach Children To Manage Expectations. Expectations are a natural part of existing in the social and scholastic world. And while a holistic approach to managing expectations promotes individual expectations over collective ones, the reality of life is that students must deal with external expectations at some point. Work at home or with an outside professional to develop strategies on how to teach your child ways to effectively manage expectations without letting them be all-consuming.
  • Limit Social Media. While children (and adults too) might find it impossible to live in the world without engaging in social media, it is completely possible! We are all aware of the studies that link social media with depression and anxiety, especially in females. Social media fosters what is known as a “cultivated self” — as people get to handpick the aspects of themselves to create a profile, which essentially is an illusory self. This is a hard concept even for adults to grasp, let alone children. The expression, FOMO (fear of missing out) is one result of social media infiltrating the minds and souls of children and teens who engage with it regularly. Many of my students tells me they use social media to help keep up with assignments and work “virtually” with their peers on schoolwork. I completely believe them. But social media can suck away a student’s precious time, and in many cases can become addictive and foster competition and feelings of low self-esteem. By “snooping” on other people’s lives, social media can trigger feelings of resentment and envy. You might want to suggest that during periods of stress, or especially intense times at schools, that students deactivate their accounts (temporarily) to avoid the temptation of logging on and getting distracted from the realities of their own lives. Encourage activities outside the house, and talk with your children about the difference between perception and reality.
  • Advocacy. Encourage your child or teen to become involved with an advocacy cause. By standing up for the rights of others, students will feel empowered and worthwhile and think outside of themselves.
  • Mantras and Affirmations. We are becoming a nation of slogans. Unfortunately, people often repeat slogans without fully understanding them or making them personal and relevant. But, by making your own mantras or affirmations, you can reclaim a slogan and make it meaningful. Encourage your child to come up with a positive slogan to start each day. Words are powerful, both consciously and unconsciously. Saying is believing!
  • Model Resilience. Parents and educators are humans, and it is impossible for us to model resilience all of the time. However, we must do our best not to berate our failures (perceived or real) because children and teens are watching our every move, even when we think they aren’t (or even when they roll their eyes at us). The more open you are to the world as a positive place despite the inevitable disappointments, the more your child will see it as one.

For strategies on how to foster resilience in children and teens, check out this fantastic book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, FAAP.

[Students Only] Study Habit Tip

Study Habit Tip: Work uninterrupted for 30 minutes, then take a break. Turn off all sensory devices. Why dangle temptation in front of you when trying to get work done? No Facebook; no texting; no TV. Time yourself using an egg timer (because you’ve purposely left your phone in the other room; don’t worry, nothing so important is going to happen in 30 minutes, and you don’t want FOMO to ruin your scholastic success). If you monitor yourself accordingly, parents will respect your work habits rather than threaten to take away privileges. And after you’ve worked for 30 minutes, give yourself a reward. You are in control of how you work. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Word.

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