Homework Part 3: Help vs. No Help

Another homework question that comes up a lot for students of all ages is the question of parent help. The student may be too dependent on parent help, the student may resist parent help, or it all may be a very messy process of some help, some nagging, some yelling, and some crying (on all sides!).  To answer this question, we have to get back to the purpose of the homework and think about the type of help we provide.

If the purpose of the homework is preparation for class (usually this is reading or researching), then creating a situation where the child is doing that preparation effectively is the most helpful thing you can do.  Creating the time for the work or possibly helping them locate audio books or software to support this might be the best way to assist.

If the purpose of the homework is practice or a final project, then the child really needs to be able to do it without your help (aside from creating the time and space for them to complete the work).  If the child cannot complete this work on his/her own, then the teacher needs to know so they can address the needs in class.  If this is a chronic issue, then we may need to meet about providing the child with the proper plan and support for moving forward in that subject.  The most effective assistance will be offering supplies, time, and space.

The type of help we give is very important. The most important rule of help to remember is that every time you help, you send the message that “you cannot do this on your own.”  This is an okay message to send when it’s true and you want to send this message. Unfortunately, we often send this message when we don’t intend to and we create helpless dependence on us, an aversion to failure/risk, and lower self-confidence.

Dr. Montessori said the child’s perennial request is “help me do it by myself.”  Giving feedback, editing a paper, or looking over a math sheet might be fine if you challenge the child to think through what they already know. “You might re-read the first paragraph and look for appropriate capitalization.”  Or “You didn’t show your work on #9. Doesn’t your teacher require you to show your work?” This is empowering the child to develop good habits.  Sitting down to the computer to edit their paper or cutting out their science fair paragraphs is not empowering them… in fact it undercuts their growth.  The daily grind of hard work, making mistakes, and receiving feedback is developing cognitive and emotional habits they need for life.

Many kids won’t want their parents’ help.  This is fine too and displays a healthy sense of independence. Whether they feel vulnerable about the paper they wrote or they are just separating from their parents a bit, this is a healthy step for them to take.  It shows great maturity and executive function skills if they can do their homework and turn it in without parent  involvement — in fact this should be every parents’ goal before senior year.

If you have concerns about your child’s follow-through, you should partner with the teachers, letting the teachers know that you are hands-off and asking them to let you know if you should be more directive or if you should support them with any structure or discipline at home.  Your relationship will be better without the added conflict, and your child will develop more self-confidence, organizational skills, and independence necessary for college and life beyond!

Homework, Part 2: Time and Place

Homework is preparing kids academically, but it also serves a very important role for the development of executive functioning.  Executive functioning is a key task of the frontal lobe of the brain and one of the most important functions for our children to develop in order to function as an adult.  It’s the center of planning ahead, estimating time, making decisions, prioritizing tasks, problem solving, and organizing things and thoughts.  It comes naturally to a fraction of kids, but most will need to practice it. Aside from any academic value, homework provides one of the best opportunities for executive function development.

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Remembering that they have it, figuring out when to do it, how much time they need to set aside, evaluating later whether they set the right amount of time aside, figuring out the environment they need to work on it independently, what to do when they don’t know the assignment, what to do when they can’t complete the assignment, and figuring out how to get the assignments back to school and turned in are huge parts of the homework process.

As parents, how do we help them practice all of this without actually doing it for them?  We have to help create the time and space (Do they know the schedule in the evening?  Do they know the schedule for the week?) for the homework to get done, but ALSO to evaluate and problem solve the variety of obstacles that will inevitably get in the way. Instead of telling them when to do their homework, you can talk about the schedule and ask them when they want to insert homework into that schedule.

We can help them evaluate if their plans are actually working or not.  Did they get it done when they thought they would?  Was that the best time to try to do it?  If they don’t know what their homework is, challenge them to figure out how to find the assignment.  If they are likely to leave it at home, challenge them to think through alternate plans and use one (pack backpack the night before, email it to themselves, set it by the front door, put it all the way in the car).  If it’s still not getting done, your child may need to lose some privilege of making these decisions for themselves (or the privilege of having other fun activities in their schedule), but your goal should always be to wean your way out of the process as soon as you can, maybe letting academic and home-based consequences do your work for you eventually.

Working backwards from adulthood/college, if they are not going to live with you, they have to figure the above out. They will need their frontal lobe for a successful life… whether they have Shakespeare to read or not.

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Our Mission – Part 2: Where Are Our Kids Headed?

TFS MissionThe first half of our mission is challenge with support. I wrote about that last week. The second half of our mission is really about where our students are headed. What knowledge and skills do they really need to live fulfilling and successful lives? We believe they have the best chance of a fulfilling and successful life if they are aware of the context that we live in (globally minded) and if they are excited about life (passion for life and learning).

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that children needed to begin understanding the world closest to them (their caretakers) and that the circle should expand as they get older (their families, their homes, their classroom, their school, their neighborhood, their city, their country, the world). This is more than geography, but it is not political. It is simply context.

What is going on around us?
How does it affect us?
How do we affect our world?

As children develop, they will naturally develop interest in the world around them, but it’s also a cycle: the more they know about the world, the more intriguing it gets and the more they want to know. Vision/life goals, compassion, a sense of purpose, respect, humility, perspective, civic duty, and intellectual stimulation are just a few of the characteristics that develop out of an interest in the world around us. From our perspective, the more they know and the more interested they are, the richer their foundation is for everything else they do with their lives.

We also want to equip them to approach life with zest. We want them to be confident enough to tackle life with excitement. We want them to have the skills and drive to continue to learn without grades or schedules or due dates. The primary way to do this is to introduce them to the intrinsic rewards (rewards that emerge from inside of us rather than rewards that are bestowed on us by others) of learning. Giving them choice in projects, encouraging tangents when we see something spark in them, Upper School interims, hands-on projects, sitting back and watching the students discover connections (instead of pointing them all out for the students), field trips and overnight trips, building multi-generational relationships, challenging them, and then celebrating with them when they overcome a challenge. These are all tactics to experience joy in learning, and joy in life. We live this mission ourselves, and then we pass this on to our students.

Introversion and Extroversion in the Classroom

unnamedThe faculty and I spend a lot of time discussing the needs of students, from both a broad, developmental perspective and from a personal and individual perspective.  One topic that comes up perennially is the role of introversion and extroversion in the classroom.  Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a NY Times bestseller since 2012, defines these two groups a little differently than you might have heard before, and I think it’s the best definition I’ve ever heard.

She says, an introvert is “a person who feels at their best and at their most alive when they’re in quieter, more mellow environments. And it stems from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Literally, different nervous systems. Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening.”

Defined in terms of the external stimulation students seek, introversion and extroversion have a huge impact on what the ideal classroom environment looks like. In this interview with Mindshift at PBS, Cain discusses the impact on the classroom.  There is a lot to consider–not all introverts are shy and lots of extroverts are surprisingly shy. Some skills that introverts might prefer to avoid (class discussions or group projects) might be important skills for them to develop for a successful college and professional life, but we want to challenge them while respecting their natural inclinations.

The smaller environment at TFS definitely creates a comfort level for our introverts to grow in that would not be possible in a large school, but it also means that they cannot hide in the back of the classroom or blend into a group.  We are always working to meet your children where they are, while pushing them to move beyond their comfort zones.  It’s an art rather than a science, but it’s a high priority for us at TFS.

Small Schools Have a BIG Influence

 

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Humans are born needing connection. We cannot thrive without relationships and the encouragement and accountability they bring. Humans have family units and close circles of friendship. We seek community in order to learn, grow, share our joys, and be sustained in hard times. So why then do we send our young into huge institutions to sink or swim, fend for themselves, and figure things out?

Small schools are very counter-cultural in today’s society — a society where bigger is better! And bigger can be better when economy of scale matters. However, when it comes to relationships, connection, people, and emotions, bigger can be overwhelming, cold, imprecise, and ineffective.

smallschool1To be loved and not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be loved and known is what we all want more than anything. [Tim Keller]  What small schools lack in options, they make up for through connection and that connection allows big things to happen. In a small, healthy environment, a student can be both loved and known — an incredible environment for them to safely face the inevitable challenges, joys, and struggles of growing up.

smallschool10Imagine a school where children (even teenagers!) see all their teachers as allies.

Imagine a school where children have the same teachers for consecutive years so they truly get to know one another.

Imagine a school where the teachers know each child’s writing style so well they can spot it as soon as they read it.

Imagine a school where assignments are tailored to the personalities and passions of the group so that necessary skills can be developed in a context where the students *like* the work (even teenagers!).

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Imagine a school where the students follow the vast majority of rules because the rules make sense to them because they’ve had a say in creating them.

All of this is possible in a small school.

When students like their teachers and feel liked by them…

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When faculty aren’t so overwhelmed that their calling becomes their burden…

When daily work isn’t dictated by politicians in offices far away…

When everyone has to get through problems and frustrations together…

When the whole community knows each other and shares similar values…

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When children (yes, even teenagers) feel known AND loved…

That’s when magic happens.
That’s when learning happens.
That’s when growth happens.

Small schools have a big influence.

I encourage you to explore small schools in your city, county, state — wherever you might live. And if you live in the St. Louis, St. Charles, or Franklin county areas in Missouri, I personally invite you to come explore The Fulton School, a school small by intention.

The Forest vs. The Orchard

With the usual January buzz in the air about goals and resolutions, I’ve been thinking about priorities and change.  Educators are actually on a cycle where new plans and new changes kick off in August, so quite often January is simply a reminder of where we’re going and what we value.

There are a number of “mantras” that serve as the unofficial mission and philosophy.  They are quick metaphors or catchy phrases that are in line with our mission, but are easier to remember and repeat than the carefully worded and somewhat cumbersome mission. Listening in on the strategic planning discussions last week, I never heard the mission or philosophy directly quoted, but a number of these came up spontaneously.

forest vs orchardA forest rather than an orchard. This is a powerful metaphor because it sends an enormous message about our educational philosophy and our view of children (humanity, really) in a mere six words.  We are cultivating an environment where everyone can (and will hopefully) learn to be comfortable in their own skin, even proud of their own uniqueness, and where we are celebrating different strengths, different preferences, different time lines, and different needs every day.  This is in stark contrast to an orchard, which many more traditional environments model, requiring everyone to grow the same way, produce the same “fruit”, at the same time and those who don’t perform like the other trees feel marginalized in some way.

I believe we are successfully providing a safe space for kids to discover who they are and to find peace with it. (Our school is far rarer than I wish it were.) This takes years to accomplish. There are many bumps along the path, but the seeds take root, grow, are nurtured, and finally they blossom.

On Thursday I listened to our alumni speak with Dr. Shahan, and the recurrent theme in their reflections was that TFS gave them the confidence to discover and be who they are.  This theme came up through several different topics, from adjusting to a large university environment to dealing with situations and people who are very different, because our self-confidence is a major thread throughout our adult lives.  Growing up in a forest is simply the best way to develop such self confidence.

Child Development: Week 5

Adolescence, Part 2

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Montessori observed that one goal of adolescence is social independence (physical and mental independence come during the first two years).  Jean Piaget wrote about the process of growing out of egocentrism (the childhood cognitive state of not seeing multiple perspectives). The awakening from egocentrism happens in several stages, but the 12 to 18 year old is discovering and learning to live with self consciousness–being conscious of his existence.

If you imagine a child dancing around happily in a field without much worry or pressure as a metaphor for the first 12 years of childhood (the eight year old rarely questions the significance of their piano or soccer skills in the universe, or the way mom/dad dresses as a representation of their identity), self consciousness is something that washes over a young adolescent as if a curtain has dropped and he realizes he is not alone in that field… and never was.  Instead, he was on a stage.  At first, adolescents are mortified and embarrassed that people were noticing them and judging them without their knowledge.  They have to do an inventory about every possible shame to decide how to file it all away and to gauge how embarrassed they should be.  Every detail matters.  As they process their new situation, they have two choices: to hide or to perform.  Both choices have the same disadvantages; they grow exhausted and lonely.  We were not made for a life on a social stage.

As kids head into the latter half of adolescence, they need to transition from the “stage” into a community.  They will gradually find a balance between feeling like everyone is looking at them and knowing they are in a group who is largely going through the same thing.  They need to strip off the costume and the performance, and let people accept them–or not–for who they are.  Again, this is a process and everyone is on their own developmental time schedule, but this transition will largely occur by 18 years of age. As adults, we will still struggle with this now and again for sure!  Some psychologists argue that this stage is currently elongated in the USA, and many of our adolescents are not reaching the final stages as quickly as previous time periods, and other cultures.  The more we help them disable and invalidate the “stage,” the better our childrenwill accomplish the tasks of adolescence and be prepared for the tasks of young adulthood.  As they head into the last official phase of childhood, we want them to have made peace with the idea of community, understand how a variety of relationships work, and their identity within those relationships.  We want them to be as confident in their roles with others as they were tying their shoes at six or practicing their trombone at 11.

Child Development

The Montessori Method challenges educators to shape the curriculum and pedagogy around the developmental needs of each age group.  There is no universally accepted or articulated framework for psycho-social development the way there is for biological development, and frankly, I don’t know many educators or doctors who give much thought to it beyond the superficial stereotypes.

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Dr. Maria Montessori

But Dr. Montessori was deeply intrigued by it, as were several of her contemporaries (Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Anna Freud to name three), and they created a solid foundation in developmental psychology, although their theories never seemed to affect mainstream practices significantly.  We know a lot about teenage behavior from neurological research (they’re developing their frontal lobes) and biochemistry (for example, the chemicals of adolescence create mood swings), but why do they feel so lonely?  Why will they engage in something that we think they will mock and then mock something we think they will like?  What is the difference between an 8-year-old who wants to learn and an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to learn?

I believe that the better educators understand these tasks, the more effective our education will be.  We cannot help our students become the best version of themselves, if we don’t truly know them — and know which phases will pass.  We need to work *with* their natural drive rather than against it whenever possible.  In this day and age, with so much data and science and information, it’s shocking how dependent our entire child-rearing system is on gut and intuition.

There’s a lot of information missing still, but most schools are not addressing the information we do have.  I want to spend the next few weeks (here on this blog) discussing what the developmental stages are and how TFS addresses each of these stages in our own way.  The more we all understand our children, the better we can love and grow them.

Week 1: The First Six Years of Life

Montessori2Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. In the first phase from birth to six years old (infancy/early childhood), children focus on physical independence and the core task is to create their personality.  They are developing independence from mom biologically, and from all adults in terms of fine and gross motor skills.  They want to do concrete tasks by themselves, take care of themselves, and work on skills that interest them.  The foundation of their character, a positive sense of self, will come from their achievements in physical independence.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  An eight year old does not find the same joy in zipping his own zipper as a four year old.  No one is quite as moody and contrary as the two year old who is setting her boundaries (except maybe the adolescent–we’ll address that later).  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of Birth to 6 Years.

Fostering an International Program

ballet team extracurricularAt The Fulton School, we have been growing an international program here for a number of years.  Since the high school was founded, we have offered at least one international trip each year.  One legacy that a Chinese teacher and a Korean teacher left here years ago was the capacity to issue visas to international students.  Since then, we have had a steady stream of Asian students.

high school classThree years ago, we expanded the number of international students we could accept to 12 by offering a home-stay boarding program and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.  In the interest of international diversity, some of our families participate in hosting students through exchange programs, which enables students from Europe and South America to study here for a year.  All of this together makes up our international program — a series of opportunities for our students to grow in their understanding of other cultures and our place in the world.

boy in caligraphy classThis spring I visited schools in China, along with our admissions director Diane Loyd and two TFS high school students, hoping to build partnerships that can bring increased depth and opportunity to our program.  Through these partnerships, we can systematize our Asian admissions process, develop relationships with referral schools, and create opportunity for our American students to take short terms trips where they get to know Chinese homes and schools in addition to culture and history.

We also visited with a few of our TFS parents/families there.  They were all such gracious hosts, sharing their hometowns, their homes, and their favorite foods with us.  We were quite moved.  Hopefully this trip was the beginning of a whole new area of adventure for Fulton School students!

*Note: Photos shown here were from our recent trip to China.

What Makes Us “Us” — Part 3

Time and Space

spaceIn our wider culture, we tend to believe that bigger is better; with “bigger” comes more opportunities, more choices, and more fun.  But bigger is not necessarily better for our cognitive and non-cognitive (character) learning.

A smaller environment gives students the time and space to grow up the way they need to, without the pressures and pulls of large environments. Our smaller size frees us up to build relationships and foster a depth of understanding that may not be feasible at larger institutions.

There are more opportunities for team work (you will make the sport team), leadership (we’re always looking for a student to take some initiative), and confidence (no one can hide from their troubles or find a tempting crutch).

In our community, each child is needed, is known, and has a place. Both the formative years and the adolescent years can play out in safety and care with enough space to find themselves and enough time to be themselves.