Monthly Archives: October 2012

What Color is Your Princess?

Am passing on to you all a delightful and witty piece written by a young friend which appeared in today’s New York Times’ “Motherlode” parenting blog. When Doreen Oliver’s 3-year-old son Bug wanted to be a princess for Halloween, Doreen was concerned. Not because he wanted to dress up in a costume usually worn by girls; she could work with that. But when she realized he believed all princesses were blond-haired and had peach complexions, she knew she had a problem. You can read it here. Way to go, Doreen!!

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How All Children Succeed: Managing Stress and the Benefits of Failure

The last post introduced the education experts at yesterday’s panel discussion, “How All Children Succeed”, and noted their focus on the critical role parents play in their children’s education. Today’s focus is on two other important issues raised in that discussion: Managing Stress and the Benefits of Failure.

Managing Stress

Having been a practicing child psychiatrist for eighteen years, Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and CEO of Turnaround for Children, Inc. (Turnaround), knows firsthand about the detrimental impact of stress on children and what can be done to manage it. Under her leadership Turnaround’s teams of educators and mental health professionals work with teachers in high poverty, low performing public schools to create learning environments which foster healthy intellectual, social, and emotional growth in each student. A significant part of their work involves understanding stress in children and helping teachers learn how to manage it.

Dr. Cantor explained yesterday that children under stress are often “distracted, tuned out, nervous, distrustful, and most notably, they can’t see a future for themselves.” Helping children to develop coping and adapting skills is key to their educational success. Turnaround’s research has determined that there is a narrow set of ways that children respond to trauma, and when teachers and school administrators are taught intervention methods designed to combat children’s response to trauma, they can see positive results. The most powerful way to mitigate a child’s stress, Dr. Cantor explains, is to ensure that the child establishes a connection to a caring, responsible adult, since even when stressed, “children don’t lose their ability to trust.” If it can’t be an adult at home, then it can be an adult at school. If the adult can consistently tell a stressed child that he is valuable, talk to him about the future that he can have and the things he can do, this adult can change the debilitating patterns in a child’s life.

Once the child establishes that bond with a caring adult, it becomes a motivating and reciprocal relationship, where the child feels as if he or she can’t let that adult down. Cantor calls this the “golden glue” that keeps the child together and moving in the right direction.

Takeaway? It is critically important for parents and teachers to understand and recognize the effects of stress on children and to provide support and stability to help them manage stress.

The Benefits of Failure

Panelists also talked about the importance of children learning how to recover and learn from failure. Dave Levin, founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), proudly reported, “I’m a big fan of failure. I’m a product of failure.” The panelists agreed that it is hard to find safe ways for kids to fail but it is important to give them the tools to deal with it. For example, teachers can give their students difficult work problems with the explanation that they don’t expect them to be able solve them quickly or easily (or at all), but the students should work on the problems until they can find a solution.

Levin believes that everyone who interacts with children can benefit from knowing how to deal with failure. He described a recent experience where he realized midway through teaching the lesson that he was doing a “terrible” job. Towards the end of the class he stopped and asked his students, “You didn’t understand that at all, did you?” When the students all confirmed that they were clueless, Levin admitted to them that he had done a terrible job teaching that day and promised to figure out how to be better the next day. By acknowledging his failure and explaining how he planned to deal with it, Levin believed everyone benefitted. “If we can keep demonstrating the shared journey of failure, we can make real progress”.

Dr. Cantor noted that failure for many children reinforces negative things they already believe about themselves and makes them inclined to give up. The key is to help children get on the pathway to find a positive solution, to encourage them to move from thinking “I am dumb” to thinking “At this moment I feel dumb and here’s how I will change that–I’ll figure out the point at which it became too tough to understand and I will work it through it or get help to understand it.”

Panelist Paul Tough described how Elizabeth Spiegel, an I.S. 318 chess teacher who leads a chess team which is among the best in the country is focused on helping her chess team deal with and manage failure. (For more about his team, see GCP post “Inspiration for Our Boys, and for All of Us: “Brooklyn Castle”, October 16, 2012.) Speigel lets her students know that she cares for and supports them but does not coddle them if they perform poorly. Immediately after each losing match she requires the teammates to go through the match again and explain (and correct) each mistake they made. No handholding here. Rather than use the hackneyed phrase “tough love” to describe how teachers should work with children to achieve these ends, Tough prefers the teachers to consider being “warm and demanding” with their children.

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As we consider these discussions it becomes evident that these methods that teachers are being taught to use in the classroom are important for parents to use at home as well. Teaching our children to manage stress and work through failure may be among the greatest gifts we can give them.

So if you hear your son (or daughter) announce “I can’t do this, I’m so dumb” or “I’m failing,” rather than being annoyed, or immediately diving into helping him clear whatever academic hurdle he is facing, try talking to him in a way that gives him the tools and the language to feel better about facing these situations. I plan to try this asap. Let us know how it goes for you.

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How All Children Succeed

This morning I attended a fascinating panel discussion of educational issues hosted by Kimberly Morgan, President of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. The discussion, “How All Children Succeed”, was moderated by Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and featured the following great group of panelists:

Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”, which from all reports should be on everyone’s short list to read;
Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and CEO, Turnaround for Children, an organization that helps schools support the social, emotional and cognitive development of children growing up in poverty;
Scott Palmer, Co-Founder of EducationCounsel LLC, an education consulting firm; and
Dave Levin, Co-Founder, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a national network of 125 free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life.

I will be reporting in more detail what came out of this fascinating session, but the theme of the morning was how important parents are to their children’s learning process. Across the economic spectrum, parents are the most effective and useful vehicle of support for their children’s development. Despite all of the research which concludes this, there is relatively little national focus on how to train parents in the best ways to support their children. Dave Levin described parenthood as a sacred promise to care for and support children from birth through adulthood (such elegant phrasing of such an accurate statement) and talked about how the KIPP schools work from the moment a child joins their school to help parents keep that promise.

More tomorrow on the importance of managing stress as a key to succeeding in education, and the benefits of failure.

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Ask Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Educating Our Sons

How can we help our wonderful, maddening, lovable, frustrating, genius, unmotivated, spectacular sons grow into healthy and happy young men? In our ongoing efforts to seek parenting advice and info from people who have made finding answers to these kinds of questions their life’s work, GCP connected with Dr. Michael G. Thompson, the renowned clinical psychologist and boy guru who has authored or co-authored several now-classic books about raising boys, including “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen”, the New York Times bestseller, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”, and “Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions about Raising Sons”. For additional information, see an earlier GCP post on Dr. Thompson, “Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Helping Parents Raise Their Sons”, (April 27, 2011)

Dr. Thompson is a consultant for independent schools and public school districts across the United States. In this capacity he has observed thousands of boys in schools, and as he writes about African American boys in his books he shows a thoughtful sensitivity to the particular issues they can face in school. We were thrilled when Dr. Thompson agreed to answer questions we compiled from a group of African American parents. This is the first in a series of posts in which we will share these questions and answers. These first questions are focused on educating our sons.

How can we help our sons become excited about learning? How can we help them to engage more with books, reading, writing and school in general rather than just video games? Even when they show signs of intellectual curiosity in the early school years, it tends to wane as middle school approaches.

You have asked the central question in education; how can we, as parents and educators, transform a child’s natural curiosity and desire to develop skills into focused academic learning. Traditional education makes the assumption that learning is hard and that children need to master basic skills—many of them boring—in order to begin to enjoy learning; since the time of John Dewey, progressive educators have hoped to tap into children’s natural curiosity and energy so that learning is enjoyable from the start and grows into a discipline pursuit. I think you need to start with this fundamental truth: Children like to learn but they very often dislike being taught. The best schools are the ones with both a progressive approach and high expectations. When you apply this principle to parents as teachers, you have to mix activities and enrichment throughout childhood with high expectations for performance. In middle school, you may need to put boys into a situation where other people like coaches and camp counselors are providing the demands (focus, discipline, etc.) as well as the rewards that boys crave (respect, public attention, status among their peers).

What are the advantages of single sex education for boys? Are there
any particular advantages for African American boys?

All boys, but especially African American boys, are under pressure to appear cool and strong and masculine in order to win the respect of their peers. One of the ways that boys can appear cool is by not conforming to adult values, i.e. by not liking school. In a single-sex environment boys find it harder to disrespect school or outsource being a good student to girls. They compete only with other boys for the top spots in the class: athletic, academic and in leadership. Also, once they get to adolescence and are on a biological basis profoundly distracted by girls, a single-sex school keeps them focused by removing the distractions. Do all-boys schools guarantee academic success for all boys? No. No school does.

How can we make sure that teachers and school administrators who may harbor unconscious biases with respect to African American males do not misinterpret normal/developmentally appropriate behavior on the part of our sons?

Racism is not as bad as it once was; we’ve made considerable progress, but it occasionally crops up in the way teachers understand and respond to the behavior of African American boys. Accusing teachers of racism or racial insensitivity always makes them defensive; that’s a tough road to go down. I think every African American parent should have an administrator at the school whom they really trust, so they can go, in private, and ask whether the teacher is seeing the situation clearly or fairly.

We are concerned about the impact of racial identity development on boys’ social maturation. Boys of color can struggle with an additional burden of trying to meet cultural expectations which others place upon them or which they place on themselves (e.g., jock, hip hop expert, street wise urban male) which may be departures from their actual personalities. This can be especially problematic when they are greatly underrepresented in their school community. How can we help them deal with this burden, which can
impact them socially and academically?

Talk about it and talk some more. All you can do is acknowledge the burden, listen to a boy describe it, empathize with his feelings and admire the courage it often takes to be a minority student.

* * * *
Stay tuned for more Q & A with Dr. Thompson.

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“Admitted But Left Out”: Important But Incomplete

Today’s New York Times includes the article “Admitted But Left Out”, found here, which chronicles how minority students at various NYC private schools feel isolated and alienated among their wealthy white classmates. Students in various schools describe how they felt uncomfortably out of place when their white classmates talked of weekends in the Hamptons and exotic vacations. They complain about feeling like a guest at someone’s house: “you can stay and look, but you don’t belong”. DJ Banton, who came to Manhattan’s Trinity School from her Brooklyn middle school through the Prep for Prep program, complained that the differences in money and experiences made the gulf between herself and her private school classmates often too wide to bridge. “The only people who could relate to what I was feeling were minorities, or they were poor,” Ms. Banton, now studying at the University of Southern California, said. “It became linked in my mind — rich, white; minority, poor.”

Anyone unfamiliar with NYC private schools reading this NY Times piece is likely to make the same link as Ms. Banton, and likely to assume that every minority private school student feels similarly uncomfortable in these schools. While the students quoted in this piece are genuine in their descriptions of their discomfort, this article makes no effort to present any alternative viewpoints. In this exhaustive discussion of the minority student experience at elite private schools, the Times couldn’t find one minority student who managed to feel comfortable among his or her white peers. Even the one recent alum quoted in this article who had fond memories of his private school experience felt “excluded by whites”. No students were included who by virtue of their friendships and/or their common experiences with some of their white classmates felt as if they belonged in their schools. (Nor could they find any white students who felt similarly economically isolated from their wealthy classmates.) These minority students exist. Some of them are our children.

No question that these schools need to focus on making sure that minority students are comfortable in their schools–our children deserve to feel as if they belong there. And it is important that we parents stay vigilant to ensure that unchecked insensitivity doesn’t harm our children. But this article doesn’t even attempt to present a fuller picture of minority student life at these schools. There is a brief mention of the impact of economics (versus race) on these students’ perspectives, but the article overwhelmingly views this issue solely through the prism of race. Even if this were a completely accurate picture, the article includes no suggestions as to what schools can do other than create films to “start the conversation”, as if this is a new issue. There is no mention of how other schools (e.g., boarding schools) have been dealing with this issue from a racial and economic perspective for decades. Eye-rolling abounds when one considers how much more interesting, informative and helpful this article could have been had the Times dug just a little deeper.

GCP readers, what do you think??


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Inspiration for Our Boys, and for All of Us: “Brooklyn Castle”

“Brooklyn Castle”, a documentary opening in NYC on Friday October 19, chronicles a year in the life of the chess team at Intermediate School (I.S.) 318, a middle school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The I.S. 318 chess teams have won more chess championships over the past decade than any other school in the country. This statistic is even more impressive considering that seventy percent of the students at I.S. 318 live below the poverty line.

According to a recent article in the NY Daily News, found here, the five teammates prominently featured in the film do much to destroy common stereotypes about chess whizzes. “The biggest misconception about chess is that nerds and smart people are the only ones who can play”, explains team member Pobo Efekoro, one of the students prominently featured in the film. He continues, “It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what color you are. Everything comes down to just you and another person, with 16 pieces on the board, trying to kill each other.” The team provides more than just an after school activities for the middle schoolers. “I consider the 318 team more of a family”, says Alexis Paredes, the team’s second best player. The coaches guide you through any problem that you have in chess, and they’re able to relate it to your life. I honestly don’t know where I would be right now without the team.” Also featured in the film is teammate Justus Williams, who GCP featured in a post last year as the youngest African American to achieve a master chess rating. (“Young Chess Masters”, November 13, 2011)

Over the course of the year, the team struggles with funding issues as the school’s budget cuts threaten its existence. But the I.S. 318 community stands behind the chess team and labors to get the funding reinstated. While the film focuses on the team’s success and touts a strong feel good message, film audiences will appreciate that public school funding for extra curricular activities like chess teams is in constant danger of being eliminated. As director Katie Dellamaggiore explains, “I want people to walk away with a smile on their face…but there are schools all over the country facing the same financial problems.” She hopes the film inspires people to support afterschool programs however they can.

Whether your son (or daughter) is a chess player, fan, or has yet to learn the game, sounds like “Brooklyn Castle” is worth seeing. Check out its Facebook page for more information on the film.

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Your Toddler Needs to Hear Words, Words and More Words

A recent New York Times article, “Before A Test, A Poverty of Words”, found here, notes the difference in the number of words young children growing up in poverty hear versus their peers whose parents are professionals. According to a study conducted by psychologists in the 1980’s, children of professionals heard, on average, about 1500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty, which creates a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reach the age of 4. As the article notes, kindergarten teachers in low-income neighborhoods consider this “word deficit” to be one of the greatest challenges they face with their incoming kindergarten classes. Education theorist E.D. Hirsch has noted that there is strong evidence that increasing the vocabulary and the general knowledge of a child before age 6 highly correlates with later success.

This couldn’t be clearer: Parents, we should be talking to our little ones. A lot. Telling them what we see going on, explaining what we are doing, what we know. We may know this, but we have to do it. If your child spends a lot of time with a sitter, make sure your sitter is talking to him. As we noted in an earlier GCP post, this means parents and sitters need to get off the cell phones while they are pushing that stroller around and start talking to their toddlers about all that they see.

For parents who have spent a lot of time in school or who read a lot, sharing an extensive vocabulary comes pretty easily; the trick is remembering to make time to do it. But what about parents whose vocabulary skills aren’t as strong? Find other ways to expose your young children to words: read aloud to them, signs, stories, captions. Think creatively about ways to expose your little one to as many vocabulary words as possible.

In a recent conversation which grew out of this article, an African American college admissions counselor at a highly selective school attributes his love of words and his impressive vocabulary (despite his parents’ limited education) to the amount of time his family spent in church. He notes that at church you would learn to recite popular passages in the somewhat stilted language of the Bible, hear the highly respected preachers and Sunday School teachers quote Scripture and then “make it plain”, translating those Biblical phrases into understandable English while teaching valuable life lessons. Joining this conversation was an African American scholar who added: “The [sermons] delivered each Sunday by the preacher, riffing on a set verse for the week, brought the King’s English in the King James Bible alive in a way that even the best literature classes find it difficult to do. In other words, the Black church made language sing”. While the younger toddlers might have a bit of trouble sitting still for the sermon, in church you will often find young ones happy to be in the pews with the adults, enjoying the music and soaking up the words. It has been harder to find older children there during recent visits with my teenaged sons–parents, they could benefit too!)

Parents, we can’t overemphasize this point: our young children need to be exposed to as many words as possible. They are little sponges during those toddler years. Let’s make the supreme effort to give them lots of words and concepts to absorb.

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Who is Peter Ramsey? You and Your Kids Are About to Find Out

On November 21, DreamWorks will release “Rise of the Guardians”, its latest animation feature. Based on “The Guardians of Childhood,” a series of children’s books by author and illustrator William Joyce, the Guardians are a no-nonsense Santa Claus, a rebellious Jack Frost, a fearless Tooth Fairy and a tough Easter Bunny, who must band together to protect the children of the world from the wrath of the dark spirit, Pitch. It has an all-star voice cast which includes Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Chris Pine, and Jude Law.

Sounds like another garden variety blockbuster, right? But here’s news: it is directed by Peter Ramsey, the first African American director of a big budget CG (computer) animated film. Ramsey, 49, is being heralded by DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg as having an “extraordinary gift for storytelling and creativity”, and the film is already winning awards from international film festivals.

But Ramsey’s path to directing this film has been anything but textbook. He was born and raised in Crenshaw, a predominantly black low to middle income neighborhood in Los Angeles. As a recent article in the Glendale News-Press, found here, notes, as a child he was mesmerized by the animated movies his parents would occasionally take him to see, but he never dreamed of being able to create them. It wasn’t until he was much older that opportunity knocked. “I was in my 20s, working in a bookstore, and I had a friend that got me a job painting a mural on a film set. And that’s where it started,” Ramsey says. “That’s when I realized it was possible. But I am completely self-taught. It was all on-the-job training.”

Ramsey eventually became a storyboard artist and worked on many live-action films including “Fight Club”, “Panic Room,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”, before moving into animation at DreamWorks, working on “Shrek the Third” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.” He has been working on “Rise of the Guardians” for three years.

I had the opportunity to see and hear Ramsey on a panel at a conference recently, and was thrilled to hear the inspirational story of his career. Directors of animated films don’t always have the high profile that directors of live action films receive, so it is good to see that Ramsey is getting the attention he deserves. Good to see as well that the significance of Ramsey at the helm of this movie is not lost on DreamWorks. As Katzenberg noted in the Glendale News-Press article: “What is remarkable is that here is a kid that grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles. The notion of some day being an artist/animator and storyteller and director is an incomprehensible idea; and the fact that he has not only succeeded, but succeeded to the extent he has, is his testament to how talented he is.” Ramsey wants others to be inspired by his success as well. “One of my big hopes is to get out there and talk to kids in connection with the movie,” he told the Glendale News-Press, “show them where I started and what they can do.”

So let’s do our part to support Ramsey. Take your sons (and daughters) to see “Rise of the Guardians” when it opens on Thanksgiving weekend, and look for his name in the credits. Talk to them about Ramsey, and how he exemplifies that wherever your starting point may be, being open to opportunity and putting in good hard work can place you squarely on the path to success.

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Texting While Parenting

In “The Perils of Texting While Parenting”, a chilling article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, experts associated a recent rise in infant and toddler injuries with parents and caregivers distracted by mobile devices when they are with young children. The article, found here, cites tale after tale of young children suffering injuries (and even a fatality) while the parent or caregiver was nearby but preoccupied with their smartphones.

Certainly we all know that it is all too easy to multitask while spending time with our children. You can push a stroller while sending a text or finishing up a work call. But we’ve all had those moments of being completely absorbed in whatever we were reading or saying and feeling the tug of a small hand on our leg or suddenly realizing that the faint buzz you’ve been ignoring is actually the insistent call of your little one. We know that this is not a good practice, but we rationalize that we are only taking our eyes off the little ones for a few seconds to check our phones.

But according to the Wall Street Journal article, parents can and do underestimate the amount of time they are preoccupied with their devices. This was evidenced in an incident in 2011 when a young woman, who was watching a friend’s young son play around a pool, got a text from a friend. When she accidentally dropped the phone while responding to the text, she looked up to find that the toddler had fallen into the pool. Fortunately he was quickly pulled out and although he required resuscitation, he recovered fully. The woman told the emergency medical technician that she had taken her eyes off the boy “for about 20 seconds”. Security video footage of the incident showed that the woman did not look at the child for more than three minutes.

I spend a lot of time walking around NYC and regularly see parents or sitters texting or talking on the phone while pushing a stroller. Gone are the days when adults would engage the babies in chatter during walks. (Thank goodness my children were all older when the smartphones came along, as I’m sure I’d have joined the texting and talking parent crew, ignoring my common sense telling that this was not the right thing to do.) OK, so we’ve always known focusing on your phone around little ones is not a great thing to do, but now we know it could be a very dangerous thing to do. Parents need to put those phones away when hanging out with little ones, and make sure the sitters do as well! Any helpful suggestions for breaking the smartphone habit?

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