Parenting in the digital world, part 1, What is this digital world and how does it fit with education?
Most of the people actively parenting now have had a very different experience of computer technology in education and in the rest of our lives than our children are having. For many parents computer technology was introduced into their school and work lives at some point. We can remember the days before smart phones and constant internet access. Our children have none of these memories. For them technology simply exists and has always been part of their lives. For this reason, parents can sometimes feel that they lack the skills or knowledge to support their children to make good decisions about using technology.
It has been my experience as an educator that technology is a key part of student’s lives not only while they are in our classrooms but when they venture out into the world beyond school. Parents who are keen for their children to excel at school and in the world beyond school will naturally be looking for ways to support their children as they learn in this new and different world.
For an excellent example of the way that technology can be used to support education check out the Manaiakalani project website http://www.manaiakalani.org/. The project began in decile 1a schools in East Tamaki and has been intensively researched by the university of Auckland. They have been able to demonstrate some great outcomes with increases in learning but also in school engagement. This is particularly heartening as the children and families in the project come from a socio economically deprived area of Auckland. For a short and heart-warming video check out this clip of Will. i. am of the Black Eyed Peas fame when he comes to visit Point England School, https://vimeo.com/65790714. This is a true example of the power of being interconnected through technology. Technology can cut through socio economic, cultural, geographic and age barriers in a way that many other methods of communication are unable to.
Sometimes we as educators and parents can take the view that what children are doing on the internet is simply passive entertainment or information gathering. Much of what occurs on the internet is much more than that and requires us to actively participate in social relationships and in making meaning of information and even contributing information to the world in a way that was much more difficult before the invention of computers and the internet.
Our current world is saturated in information. In the 19th and for most of the 20th century teachers and educational institutions such as schools and university were holders and creators of information. The key job of primary and secondary schools was to impart as much of this information as possible while children attended school. In the 21st century the internet is the way that we access much of this information. All the information we could ever need is available on the internet. Arguably, one of the key roles of schools in the 21st century is to teach children how to make meaning of this information, how to access and judge the usefulness of the information and how to contribute to the available information in a useful way.
Transition is something that is on the minds of many parents and children currently. The end of the school year is racing towards us at a great rate. At times children and parents may both be feeling somewhat unsettled by the changes that the end of year signals. Strategies that will help at this time of the year are:
Validate the feelings your child may be having about the end of their time in their current educational setting. They should be able to celebrate what they have achieved and acknowledge that they may feel a little sad about leaving the familiar.
Give them as much knowledge and experience of their new setting as possible. Visits to their new educational setting, looking at websites and online images as well as talking about what might happen during their first days is helpful. If possible, during the school holidays taking a trip to the new school to allow your child to walk the grounds and play on the equipment in the playground will start to develop some familiarity for them.
Share your own experiences of managing changes in workplace or living places can be helpful. Make sure you emphasise the strategies you used to make things work well.
Both the Education Review Office and the Ministry of Education Research Division have some great research with a New Zealand schools focus to guide thinking about transition. Their findings suggest that rather than an event, transition is a process requiring students to make ongoing changes over an extended time as new challenges appear. Reassuringly for parents, by the end of their first year at secondary school most students in the studies reported many positive experiences at secondary school. They were making good academic gains and few when asked said they would rather return to primary or intermediate. Of interest is that it appears that for some students the second half of the year is a time that negative thoughts about High School appear rather than within the first few weeks.
Protective factors include ensuring that friendships are continued or established at the new school. Students who had friends transitioning to the same school benefited from this, but the new school environment also provided opportunities to make new friendships with a wider range of students. A sense of belonging through engaging in cultural and sporting activities was also a feature of successful transition along with the sense that teachers and school staff provided interesting and engaging lessons and demonstrated that they knew about and cared about their students.
How can parents help to ensure year 9, is a positive year that sets the scene for a successful secondary school career? Developmentally one of the key jobs of an adolescent is to begin to separate from their parents as they move towards adulthood. Parenting an adolescent is tricky as many of you will be aware already. It takes strategy. Keep in mind that at times your offers of help will be declined (possibly not very politely) just because your teen wants to be independent. Overall the best approach is to stay connected to the new school by attending any events that are open to parents such as meet and greets for new parents, parent teacher conferences, sporting events or other. Stay informed of what is happening at school by reading newsletters and school websites. Keep talking to your child about school when you can. Good times for talking are, in the car while you are driving them somewhere or while you are both engaged in a task together such as cooking or washing the car. If your child expresses any concerns, try a problem-solving approach. Generate a range of possible choices allowing your child to make the final choice for themselves. If you are concerned that things aren’t going well get in touch with school. Year level deans are usually responsible for the pastoral care of the children in their year level and will be interested in hearing from you.
Making the move to high school signals a time of change for both parents and children. Recognising this and adapting to the changes by using new strategies will help to make high school a time of positive learning and growth for parents and their children.
Working memory is a term I have heard teachers and parents mention recently. The first question really is what is working memory? Of note is that working memory is not a physical part of the brain. It is a model that provides a way for scientists to discuss and understand human function. The brain is very complex and multiple parts of the brain are implicated in the function we are calling working memory. The model is pictured with the Central Executive taking the role of the manager of lots of aspects of thinking including working memory, attention, reasoning, task flexibility, task solving, planning, and execution. The visuospatial sketch pad helps us to understand the world through visual perception and making meaning through vision. The Episodic Buffer is a combination of verbal and visual and tends to operate around highly memorable events. Phonological Loop provides understanding through language, hearing instructions, listening to music and talking to other people. As information is filtered through these processes and managed by the Central Executive it will eventually be stored in long term memory. This is when we can start to develop automaticity and fluency as we learn.
Attention has a big part to play in Working Memory. Interestingly there are two aspects to this. It is important that we can be inattentive to information that is not relevant to what we want to learn or in other words ignore distractions. The other aspect is of course being able to pay attention to something that is relevant to what we want to learn. Children who struggle with attention find that they struggle to filter out what is not important. For Working Memory to work well we need to be able to decide what to pay attention to and then actually pay attention to it. For parents and teachers figuring out who is paying attention can be difficult. It is hard to tell from the outside who is and isn’t paying attention. Attention requires considerable energy and paying close attention to a task can be extremely tiring.
So, what is happening when Working Memory fails? A great analogy is of post it notes. Everyone’s working memory is a different sized post it note but once you have filled the post it note with information the rest of the information just doesn’t fit. You or your child might have very large A3 sized post it notes while someone else may have a tiny post it note. Another analogy is of a coffee cup. Again, everyone has a different sized coffee cup but once the cup is full all the rest of the coffee will flow out of the top of the cup and be lost.
How can we help to support our Working Memory? The essentials are chunking information together, pacing information and rehearsal. Chunking means that instead of presenting information in single pieces we put them together. An example of this is the way we generally group numbers in a phone number together. A phone number might be presented as 021 515 2890 or in three chunks rather than 10 individual pieces of information. Ensuring that the pace of information is snappy, short and uses simple language. Rehearse information at least 4 times but some children with difficulty in this area may need between 10 -100 rehearsals. Have you ever gone out and then can’t remember if you locked the door? This is an example of working memory failing. In order to get around this you can say as you lock the door, I’ve looked the door up to 4 times so that you will be sure to remember.
Once you have the essentials in place there are some other additional things that help working memory. Ensure that the physical environment is well organised, and clutter is removed. A child with some difficulty with working memory may be able to recall your instructions to find their uniform shirt until they arrive at their room and then must search under the bed and in several different drawers. By the time they’ve done this they may well have forgotten what they were looking for. Look for eye contact or a physical signal that your child is listening (paying attention to what you are saying) when you ask them to do something. Make sure that your child has started on a task, once they get going, they are more likely to keep going but if you tell them to do something and their working memory has failed, they are unlikely to be able to start. Check that your child has the language to explain to you what they are experiencing. Sometimes children can become very frustrated because they don't’ know how to tell us that they don’t know how to do something, and they are experiencing an emotional reaction to it. Encouraging physical intense physical activity appears to provide stimulus to working memory. Provide opportunities for children to run around prior to them starting homework and they may well be able to produce better results.
As parents we can help our children to make the most of their working memories, some of the tips might help our working memories also.
Last week I talked about taking the pressure off your child if they are taking a little longer to acquire automaticity with reading, writing and arithmetic. This week I’d like to share some strategies that I’ve used when teaching children who are struggling to get to automaticity in some aspects of their learning. Many of the ideas are very simple and you may have tried them previously. The key is to select an approach, give it a go, if your child enjoys it and you find it doable then keep going with it for a while. Once you and your child have had enough of it, select another approach.
One of the most debunked but continually perpetuated myths about learning is that people have a learning style. I continue to run into people who talk about a child’s learning style. The research in this area is very consistent in its findings that people do not have a learning style which dominates compared to any other learning style. For more information and links to research check out this link from Yale University Centre for Teaching and Learning, https://ctl.yale.edu/LearningStylesMyth
What is true is that when we learn we need to be presented materials in a range of different ways so that it makes sense to us. We can’t predict accurately which way is going to work for everyone at a specific time, given their developmental and ability levels. Therefore, it is ideal to present information in a variety of ways. Anyone trying to learn something new should be given the opportunity to engage with this learning in different ways. So, pick something that appeals to you and your child and give it a go.
The kinds of things that are often best learned using the following strategies tend to be things like sound to letter correlation, or the understanding that a symbol such as A can sound like a as in apple or a as in paste, simple recognition of the name of a symbol such as the alphabet or numbers or symbols for mathematical operations such as + and - or basic maths facts.
Tips to ensure success and a fun (pain free) session:
Tip 1 limit the number of items to be learned. For example, if you are learning spelling words just start with 3 words. Once your child is confident with these then add in one or two new words, keeping the known words. This approach means that your child gets to quickly experience success and a sense of mastery from which they can build new learning.
Tip 2 choose a ‘good’ time. I know it’s hard to think about what a good time might be. My first option would be to ask your child when they would like to do this work. Driving in the car or walking somewhere together or while you are waiting for another activity to begin are all options.
Tip 3 be regular about sessions. Every day is ideal.
Tip 4 keep the sessions short and upbeat. A couple of minutes up to about 5 minutes is probably enough if the sessions happen daily.
Resources that might be helpful:
Flash cards, cards with individual pieces of information on them. This could be an alphabet letter or a number or a word. Flash cards can easily be created at home using sturdy card and a marker pen or you can purchase them.
Magnets on the fridge (or another magnet suitable surface). These can be purchased from two-dollar shops or the Warehouse and are usually in individual letter or number form.
Word or number rings, small numbers of words, letters or numbers threaded onto a small metal ring.
This kind of learning can also be done without any resources at all, through using body movements, to help with learning.
Smart chutes, https://www.smartkids.co.nz/collections/smart-chute. These are somewhat pricey so may not be ideal for everyone. A range of cards can be purchased ready made with high frequency words, basic facts, colours etc. I have also made my own cards which work just fine.
Play dough or other modelling clay
Crayons, paints, pens of various colours and thicknesses, paper
Let’s start with the no resource ideas. To keep things simple, I’ll just refer to one kind of learning, but most strategies could be used for either numeracy or literacy activities.
No resources required:
Ask your child to write out their spelling words, on the carpet or the wall, back of the car seat in front of them (any textured surface) using their finger. Sounding the words out at the same time.
Ask your child to spell out their words in the air using their finger. This can be done in the car while you are travelling to and from school or activities. If this approach seems to be working you could add in a tray of sand, salt, flour or any other textured material you can think of and ask your child to spell out their words in this material while saying the words aloud.
Once it turns dark you can use a flashlight to spell the words out on a wall or in the air.
When the weather is nice, and you can go outside, use a paint brush and a bowl of water to paint the words on concrete.
Minimal resources required:
Competition can sometimes keep children engaged in this kind of learning. If your child is learning to recognise high frequency words (check with your child’s school for a list of high frequency words) or basic maths facts, you can set up a table and time your child to see how quickly they can read their words or complete their basic maths facts. Children can compete against their own times or against a parent. This should be done with care to ensure that the child is experiencing success. I’d only try this once the child knows the information but perhaps needs to keep revisiting it so that they maintain their fluency. For example, if a child is learning basic facts and they know their doubles up to 10 (two times table) I’d perhaps start using the competition to maintain knowledge of doubles and increase fluency. I’d then begin teaching the three times table by having a ring of three problems that we went through daily adding one more problem once the child is competent with the first three.
Put the cards into a bag, take a word/problem/letter out and say it as quickly as possible.
Hide the cards around the house to create a treasure hunt. As each card is found read it out/solve the problem.
Hide the cards outside (on a fine day) to create a treasure hunt. As each card is found read it out/solve the problem.
Lay the cards out on the floor and encourage your child to jump from card to card reading it out/solving the problem.
Use the cards to create words. Often this will involve cards with alphabet letters on them create a selection of vowel letters (aeiou) and consonants so that children can create consonant vowel consonant pattern words. These are typically, cat, sat, mat and so on.
Lay the cards out on the floor and throw a bean bag or other on top of a card. Read the card aloud/solve the problem.
As your child reads the word on the card a loud ask them to trace their finger over the letters.
Lay the flash cards out on a flat surface with the words facing down. Ask your child to turn them over one at a time reading the words as they turn them over.
Magnetic letters or numbers:
Point to letters and ask your child to name them or produce their sound - recognising that some have more than one sound.
Ask your child to group them into words
Ask your child to create words and then exchange letters to create a new word. For example, ask your child to create sat then take the s away and ask them to make a new word such as cat.
Playdough or other modelling clay:
Ask your child to make letters using the dough or clay.
Join the letters together to make words.
Ask your child to create shapes to illustrate what they are learning
Flatten the dough and use a satay stick or toothpick to inscribe the dough with letters or words.
Select a few items to be learned, write them on sturdy card and attach to a split ring.
Use in a similar way to flash cards adding items to the ring as your child reaches competency with the first ones.
Word rings can be very useful when teaching basic facts, add enough cards to create one basic fact then add more so that the child can create more. For example, if you create a ring with a 1 card a 2 card and a 3 card you can ask your child what is 1+2 or what is 2+1 or what is 1+3 or 3+2.
Smart chutes are tubes with a lot at the top and bottom the child posts a card into the top slot and inside the chute the card is flipped and comes out the bottom slot upside down. The cards are marked on both sides. For example, a child posts a card showing 3+2 in the top and then it comes out the bottom showing 5. There is enough of a delay for the child to say the correct answer.
Crayons, paints, pens with a variety of colours and widths:
These provide the opportunity for children to be creative and choose different types of medium to write their words.
I hope you can find one or two ideas from this list to help you to support your child to become fluent in their knowledge of spelling words, letter knowledge, high frequency words, maths problems or symbols. If you have some ideas, I haven’t mentioned please share them in the comments section.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.