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Most recent posting below. See other articles in the column to the right.

The Developmental Psychologists’ Back-to-School Shopping List

Ready or not, it’s time to gear up your children for back to school. They need the basics—lunchboxes, backpacks, notebooks, pencils, and pens. If they’ve grown a bit over the summer, a few new tops and bottoms, along with the must-have sneakers of the season, also might be in order. And if your kids are middle-schoolers or older, you might need to find room in your budget for more pricey supplies like laptops, hotspots, and USB flash drives.

Thankfully, some states are offering tax free shopping days to ease the financial whiplash. Still, getting your children ready to hit the books can hit the wallet hard. Especially if your children, like mine, are lobbying for some fancy extras, like a locker chandelier, a bedazzled mouse, and a solar-powered backpack with a built-in security alarm and strobe light.

Then there are other back-to-school items. Those that don’t make the usual shopping lists but that are much more important for your children than any multi-subject notebook, scientific calculator, or smart pen. I’ve narrowed down this list to five. Unlike the lists you receive from the school principal, my list is made up of things you already have and that are grounded in scientific research for improving children’s learning. Take that, glue stick and washable markers.

1. Praise Children For Their Effort, Not Their Intelligence

Most of us parents praise our children their smarts. We do it constantly. We do it because our children are bright and we think that telling them so makes them feel good and gives them the confidence to attack their schoolwork with gusto. We do it when we say “You’re SO smart, buddy,” when we boast about their brain power to their grandparents, and when we wear our “I’m With Smarty Pants” tee-shirts to back-to-school night.

This is good parenting, right? Wrong. Telling children they’re smart does not give them the confidence to take on new challenges or the self-esteem to persevere when they fail. Research suggests that telling children they’re smart might actually interfere with their ability to learn.

“What?” you’re thinking. “How can telling junior that he is smart do any harm?” It’s because repeated praise for being intelligent sends the message that intelligence is an innate and fixed trait. This leads children to discount the importance of effort. They reason, “I’m smart, so I don’t need to try hard” and they often believe that putting forth effort is only something that “dumb” kids have to do. Children who are praised for their intelligence also become less likely to take intellectual risks and are more likely to give up when the going gets tough. It is more important for them to appear smart than to chance making mistakes and getting labeled as “dumb.”

Praising children for their intelligence also stymies their ability to deal with failure. When you tell your daughter, “You got an A! You’re so smart!” she also hears, “If you don’t get an A, you’re not smart.” So when children labeled as “smart” fail, they reason they’ve failed because they mustn’t have the intellectual goods to cut it. In fact, some studies show that when “smart” children struggle, they are more likely to lie about their performance than to admit that they had trouble. Too much praise can be especially troubling for children who have had an easy time in the early grades but then run into subjects in middle school that require some effort. When they begin to make errors, they don’t try harder or study more diligently because they believe that talent alone and not effort creates success. So they conclude that they must have been unintelligent all along. It’s at this point that many “smart” children throw in the academic towel.

In contrast to children who are praised for being smart, children who are encouraged for their effort come to believe that intelligence is a malleable quality that can be improved through hard work. These children feel that their success is in their control and therefore they are not thwarted by failure. They interpret failure merely as a signal to try harder or do things differently. In fact, children who are encouraged for their effort often are game to take on demanding tasks and work to develop new strategies. In short, these children tend to go at challenges eagerly, persevere when the going gets tough, and show resilience after failure.

So when you tell your children they’re smart, you’re not doing them any favors. A little “you’re such a smarty” here and there likely won’t do any lasting damage, but the key is to praise children for their effort, their hard work, their persistence, and their strategies. Next time your son comes home with an A, instead of telling him how smart he is, praise him for trying hard, ask him how he studied, or tell him he should take a tougher class next semester. If he comes home with a lower grade than expected, be honest. Don’t tell him that he deserved a better grade because he is smart. Instead, encourage him to think through ways that he could improve.

2. Make Learning Meaningful, Not Rewarded

If you’ve ever promised your child a cookie, some TV time, or another reward for finishing her word study homework, working on her science fair project, or writing her summer vacation book report, then you know that bribes can get things done. What you might not know is that they also squash children’s drive to learn.

Children are born with a deep desire to learn. In fact, children’s drive to learn is so strong that some consider it a universal human drive, like hunger and thirst. You can see this drive most clearly in infants and young children who are constantly observing, exploring, experimenting, and asking questions. They engage in these behaviors for the same reason we indulge chocolate truffle cake. It feels good. In psychology speak: learning is internally motivated. The “learners high” that children get from making new discoveries, learning new things, and mastering new skills spurs them to do more exploring, experimenting, and questioning so that they can learn even more things and get rewarded with even more good feelings.

As children’s knowledge and abilities become increasingly sophisticated with age, their learning brings them not only joy but also mastery. Mastery gives them the capacity to do new things and take certain risks with their know-how. It gives them the goods to create better surgical techniques, alternate forms of energy, new information technologies, and a flavor of tofu that actually tastes and feels like bacon. Learning is a straight up reward cycle that if allowed to thrive, will persist for a lifetime. But it is possible to break this natural cycle by doing something as seemingly harmless as doling out rewards for children’s learning.

“Can gold star stickers really undermine children’s learning?” you’re thinking. Yep. Decades of behavioral research has demonstrated that rewarding any behavior that is internally motivated with external incentives reduces our natural drive to carry out that behavior. The reasoning goes that when an intrinsically rewarding behavior is reinforced with external incentives, like prizes, cash, or cupcakes, we begin paying more attention to the incentives and less attention to the pleasure that comes from doing the behavior. This shift in attention brings about a shift in motivation to extrinsic incentives and ostensibly disables the existing intrinsic motivation. When children are rewarded for doing something they enjoy, like learning, the reward alters their locus of motivation from internal to external and they come to expect rewards for learning.

It is true that children will do more math homework and word study worksheets if we promise them a chocolate sundae, a superhero action figure, or videogame time. But in the process of repeatedly rewarding them for doing their work, they go from learning because it feels good to learning to get a special privilege or prize. Then the goodies, rather than any internal drive, come to motivate learning. Even enjoyable learning tasks can be turned into drudgery that children will do only for external incentives. Rewards for even play activities, like drawing and block building, can snuff out the fun.

In addition to being a developmental psychologist, I am also a mother. So I realize that part of the problem is that much of the learning that some teachers ask our children to do doesn’t satisfy their drive to learn any more than a cardboard cheesesteak satisfies my drive to eat. I realize that memorizing the qualities of landforms, reading about the physical properties of sand, and mapping the major battles of the Civil War doesn’t even come close.

But as a parent, boring projects or seemingly lame homework is not an excuse to offer up rewards. Rather it is our job to get our children to realize the real-world benefits of the skills these assignments are developing. The thing is, the motivation to learn doesn’t come from the process of learning. It comes from products of learning. And sometimes these products are difficult for children to see without our help.

The motivation to read, for instance, doesn’t come from the thrill of sounding out new words, writing out their definitions, and then generating a list of synonyms. This is why you battle with your third-grader to sort her vocabulary words by prefixes and suffixes. The motivation for reading comes from being able to do meaningful things, like reading comic books, bumper stickers, and secret notes from your best friend.

So what can you do? Make sure that your children understand the real-world benefits of the skills they’re developing. Think of it this way. It is surely tough for a first-grader to understand why he’s being asked to memorize how to spell a set strange words, write them four times each, and then sort them into alphabetical order. But if his parents regularly read storybooks, street signs, store marquis, cupcake recipes, and restaurant menus with him, then he’s likely to understand not only why his teacher is asking him to learn new words but also that reading can be good fun. Likewise, the motivation for learning math is not the excitement of rounding up whole numbers, estimating whether 8 + 9 is more than 20, determining the volume of containers, and finding the perimeter of a pentagon. It is driven by the real-world benefits of being able to figure out whether you have enough birthday money to buy both the doll house and the family minivan, divide your jellybeans equally among your friends, know if your new water gun is too big to fit under your bed, and estimate how many bags of sand you’ll need to fill the new sandbox.

If you can help your children understand these sorts of real-world benefits of their new knowledge, then you’ve motivated their learning. And you’d never have to promise a reward or offer a bribe in exchange for their schoolwork—which is how the whole problem with motivation starts in the first place.

3. Foster Inquisitiveness and Fantasy Play

Children are natural born scientists. Their research program gets going almost immediately. As infants, they use their entire set of senses to study the physical properties of the world. They grab things, squeeze things, push things, spill things, dip their hands into things, put things into their mouths, rip things apart, and bang things into one another. All of this means a very messy laboratory.

Once children have collected sufficient pilot data, they begin to carry out experiments. “What happens if I pull on Mommy’s necklace?” “Will it snap or stretch?” Over time, their experimental designs become increasingly sophisticated. “If I throw Mommy’s glasses up in the air, how high will they go? If I throw them with more force, will they go higher? Will they go faster?”

Soon children form hypotheses about the world and design experiments to test their hypotheses. “When I turned my bowl upside down my oatmeal splattered all over the table. I hypothesize the same thing will happen when I flip over my juice.” When the data don’t turn out as expected, they tweak their methodology and use the new evidence to self-correct their conclusions. “Rubbing the blue crayon on my arm did not color my arm blue. It might work better on kitchen cabinets.”

Children extend their studies to the social world; that is, to people. “If I yell loud in the grocery store, will I get Daddy’s attention?” Like any good scientist, they study different populations to see if their results generalize. “Will yelling loud get Mommy’s attention, too?” And they replicate their experiments to ensure their findings are stable, “I’m going to yell in the grocery store one more time, just to make sure that my last results were not a fluke.” Through their studies, children learn about the world, themselves, and others.

I tell you all this to let you know that what often seems like calculated attempts to annoy or oppose you are merely part of the program of research that your children kicked off at birth. But also because a recent study has revealed that many of the qualities we see in young children in their attempts to figure out the world are the very same ones common to adults who are considered innovators and visionaries in their field. For instance, innovators get a kick out of asking “what if” “why” and “why not” questions that challenge the status quo and shake things up. They also have the ability to associate creatively—to connect facts in new ways. Finally, they have an unquenchable drive to experiment and tinker with things and new ideas. Sounds a lot like your three-year-old, right?

Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of this study on innovators said, “You can summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: ‘inquisitiveness’…It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children…If you look at four-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work…We also believe that the most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were stuck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration.”

Other research suggests that young children and adult innovators also share a facility for fantasy. You already know that most children have a rich fantasy life. Some believe that child-eating five-headed monsters live in their closets, that they share the dinner table with a talking purple hippopotamus that only they can see, and that a flying fairy takes their baby teeth in exchange for a small prize. But an adult could never get away with such fancy, right?

The very best innovators—those who change the world with their ideas—also think about the nonexistent and dream up imaginary worlds. The difference between children and adults, however, is that adult innovators make their fantasies come true.

Almost everything in the room you’re sitting in now—from your contact lenses to your smartphone to your coffee maker—would have seemed as fantastic to your great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents as Middle Earth does to you. Think about it. A twisted bulb of glass that produces light? Swallowed capsules that cure a festering infection? A handheld machine that allows you to throw your preschooler a goodnight kiss from a taxi three hundred miles away, map the miles you jogged that morning even though you have no idea where you are, set the DVR in the family room to record tonight’s big game, and broadcast a homemade video of your pugs dressed up on Halloween as Yoda and Princess Leah? All of these things surely seemed utterly fantastic before they were conceived and built. Their eventual invention depended on a healthy dose of the fantastic. Unimaginative scientists don’t produce radically new ideas. Likewise, children invent new ideas when they’re given the room to create, consider, and immerse themselves in worlds that don’t exist.

So there you go. This discussion gives you two very powerful but simple things you can do to boost your children’s success. First, encourage their natural inquisitiveness and their consequent desire to explore and experiment. Second, give your children, even the older ones, the space and the freedom to fantasize. Growing older shouldn’t mean the end of one’s fantasy life. In fact, it is the knowledge that we gain as we grow older that gives imagination its power. It is exactly how one very innovative engineer, for instance, took Isacc Newton’s theories on centrifugal force and gravity, imagined a roller coaster with an inclined diving loop and a wraparound corkscrew, and then built it.

4. Lobby for More Recess

In many schools, children are spending less and less time in recess and more and more time doing school work. This trend is largely attributable to the desires of school administrators to make more time for teaching skills in hopes of improving their students’ academic performance. Some schools take away recess privileges for bad behavior or believe that recess is an outmoded practice that simply makes children rowdy. And many schools have banned the games of our childhood, like tag and chase, and hand out playground balls like they’re controlled substances.

Turns out that none of these trends are supported by a lick of research. Children’s academic performance was better in the years before the schools starting taking away recess. Studies show that East Asian elementary-schoolers, who outperform American children on standardized tests, are given more recess breaks than American children. Experimental work shows that children’s attention to tasks is better, not worse, following recess. They fidget less and focus more after free play. Playful, non-structured breaks are especially important in maximizing children’s performance. It is the unstructured nature of playful breaks that serves to reduce the cognitive interference built up from earlier sustained periods of structured classroom work. This is especially the case for younger children whose developing nervous systems makes classroom tasks cognitively taxing.

A second lesson learned from research on recess is that recess IS learning. Consider the social and cognitive demands that come along with unstructured play with peers. It is a demanding and motivating context like no other. To keep the play going—which children are very motivated to do—they must understand the perspectives of others, figure out what behaviors are expected, and keep their emotions in check. Consequently, they’ll learn how to cooperate with others, regulate their emotions, communicate effectively, and pay close attention. Importantly, these are the very social-cognitive skills that not only help on the playground, but also in the classroom.

These findings suggest that we have taken something as simple and beneficial as recess and wrongly labeled it as worthless, dangerous, and old-fashioned. Children need playful breaks so that they can pay better attention to their academic work and learn the skills demanded by their curricula. A teacher wouldn’t punish her students by taking away math or reading because these subjects develop important skills. The very same is true of recess.

5. Push for Less Homework

Homework is a good thing, right? It reinforces the skills learned in the classroom and it fosters good study habits. Or is it busy work and getting it done can cause a whole lot of family stress?

There’s growing evidence that the latter is the case in many families. There is no solid empirical evidence that homework actually improves young children’s learning. In fact, when children are asked to do too much homework, it has the opposite effect. Homework only has minimal benefits for achievement in middle school. It’s not until high school that there are clear academic benefits to homework, but again, they start to decline if children are too overloaded.

Now I realize that many elementary-schoolers are spending more time daily with Sponge Bob than doing homework. But I find it striking that we have no evidence that there is any academic benefit to elementary school homework, yet educators feel compelled to assign it and parents continue to think it helps students. Homework is going to be a hard habit to break, but considering that it is not linked with academic achievement until at least middle school and then only marginally, why assign it? Can’t teachers squeeze all the learning children need into the seven or eight hours a day they already have them at school? It seems to me that all of the other pastimes outside of school that are good for children are a much more wise and fun way for them to spend their afterschool time.

But what if you’re one of those parents who just cannot do nothing? My suggestion? Cook a family dinner. In a large study, University of Michigan’s Sandra Hofferth found that the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems among three- to twelve-year-olds was more family meal time together. Family meals beat out all the usual suspects, like time at school, attending church, playing organized sports, engaging in art activities, and doing homework.

Keep in mind, too, that no homework doesn’t necessarily mean no learning after school. As alluded to above, there is overwhelming evidence that the simplest of activities, like children’s free play with peers, boosts important social and cognitive skills.

So now you have your second back to school list. Certainly all of these things are free. Some of them may be more difficult to pull off than getting a new protractor and pencil box. But all of them are more important.

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