Screen Time Series, Part 2

The Challenges

Many parents worry about screen time, but don’t necessarily understand all of the threats.  I’m going to talk through four major categories for parents to consider.

1. Biological – Screens affect the brain and eyes primarily through the blue tint of the back light.  This is changing all the time as new screens come out, but be aware that the light is extremely (unnaturally) stimulating and disrupts sleep and blinking significantly.  Even sleeping near a screen changes our sleep patterns, as part of the brain appears to keep “one eye open” in case a message comes in.  Experts recommend that children don’t use screens an hour before bedtime and do not sleep with screens in their rooms.

2. Chemical – This is more complicated, but screen addictions are real and chemically measurable.  This is mostly associated with gaming, but we all experience slight stimulation when we see the little red dot indicating a notification and we all release endorphins as we tick off the checking of those dots–reading our texts or clearing our notifications.  Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social media which imitates an addiction (adults report this too), but the chemistry here gets mixed in with social pressures and they are hard to separate.  Lastly, due to their addictive nature, or how easy it is for us to pay attention to our screens, our concentration and attention when we’re NOT looking at a screen has suffered. This is a huge problem at school, obviously, where teachers and texts cannot compete with the entertaining nature of a device.  Our devices are absolutely affecting our brain chemistry and we are only beginning to learn the ins and outs of it.

3. Social – Two dangerous elements of social interactions on our devices are that it’s virtually unsupervised and it never turns off. So imagine allowing your 14 year old to go to a large party in a warehouse with 50,000 other teenagers and then leaving them there for days without any adult around.  Except it’s worse than that–since it’s virtual, everyone can craft their own brand or narrative. People can make themselves seem perfect, popular, skinnier, happy. They can make others feel awful in very subtle ways (I would argue that this is much more hurtful written down for some reason than when the same thing might happen in the hallway). Kids feel left out, uncool, unloved, behind on the latest news, etc. (they may *feel* isolated but they won’t look like it). And it never stops unless a parent stops it. It is VERY hard for kids to manage all of this without adult help. Also, the false sense of anonymity makes almost everyone (adults and kids alike) bolder on the internet–almost everyone will say things in a comment or text or even an email that they would never say to someone’s face.  I predict that there’s some sort of neural inhibitor missing when you’re not looking at someone face to face (my own surmising, not research).  It’s just kids being kids (impulsive, a little egocentric, and fighting for a sense of emotional survival) without adult supervision. They NEED adult supervision to coach, warn, provide perspective, call other parents, and periodically absolutely forbid something.

Secondly, screen time can stunt kids who are awkward and truly isolated because it gives them an excuse to avoid interaction. Much of socialization involves surviving awkward conversations, learning how to approach a group of kids and join in, and grinding away slowly at the process of building relationships.  Kids who aren’t as good at this use screens to avoid these situations, so they are even less likely to develop these skills.

4. Self-Regulation – Devices give us all a way out when sometimes true growth or character is developed by not having a way out.  While it’s fantastic that they have made our lives easier, we are learning that children benefit a lot by NOT having an easier life in many ways.  The confidence and grit and independence that we want them to have can only be developed through actual practice, working through discomfort, fear and insecurity.  Constantly having a lifeline to parents, or to avoidance/escape, or to entertainment leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness.

Was this too depressing? Part 3 will be the benefits of screen time!

Montessori, Part 2:  How Do We Engage Students?

Theoretically, every educator wants to engage kids, so how does the Montessori philosophy do this differently?  It starts with a deep knowledge of child development.  We build the educational environment around a scientific understanding of the child’s needs. Most traditions are based on the institution’s needs historically (schools have been factories that take a group who are the same age and do the same thing with them, test them, then move them on). While today’s trend is to focus more on a student’s needs, this is difficult to do well without changing the fundamental structure of the classroom–and sometimes even the standards in the classroom.

At Fulton School, when we focus on the developmental needs of the students, the classroom looks different than a traditional classroom. Students of all ages need choice, personal responsibility, opportunities for exploration and mastery, emotional nurture, and freedom to move within the classroom. They need to be able to learn on their own time table and in their own style.

Our youngest students can learn much more than our culture gives them credit for if material is presented in concrete, small chunks. Our elementary students will burst with enthusiasm if they are able to chase their passions and research their curiosity. Everyone doesn’t have to be on the same page of the text book or spend the same amount of time on every concept—especially as material grows more complex. But to do this well, that is, purposefully, carefully, and methodically, schools and teachers have to be willing to rethink classroom structure, schedule, and assignments.

Here at TFS, we have much more freedom to do this culturally at the youngest ages. We can teach three year olds to read and do math in ways they love, which is impressive, but we can also teach them pour water, to zip their coats, and to prepare their own food, which is extremely valuable to their sense of self worth.

As they get older, we have more cultural pressure to cater to the college preparatory environment, so we have to get creative if we are going to engage them!  PreCalculus and long historical research papers may not fit the developmental needs of many adolescents, but practically speaking we need to include them so our graduates are prepared for the challenges that await them in college. We look for ways to include choice, movement, individual rhythms and learning rates, personal responsibility, relevance, and a breakdown of concepts in classes that may not be naturally interesting to the older students in the hopes of engaging them in a curriculum we can’t necessarily control.

While we engage toddlers and preschoolers differently than 6-12 year olds and 12-18 year olds, the key is being willing to take risks, allowing for some flow and some uncertainty, and watching for the student response at every age group.  Dr. Montessori said that the work should call to the child and that is our goal: that our students are drawn to what they need to learn rather than be pushed, bribed or threatened.  This is no easy task and is much more of an art than a formula, but we are committed to doing it every day in every class. This is what makes us different.

Montessori, Part 1: What’s All the Hype?

As a parent of a child who attends a Montessori school, you might get asked, “What is Montessori? What’s all the hype?”

The Montessori Method is the pedagogy (pedagogy is a fancy word for “how we teach”) that sets our school apart from others. There are different ways to summarize Montessori, but here is our core belief: Kids are natural learners and we must work with their desire to learn rather than against it.  At The Fulton School, we strive to create an environment where kids can learn to their hearts’ desire.

The most fundamental characteristic of a Montessori classroom is engagement. Kids who are engaged when they’re learning will learn deeper, will learn faster, and will love learning. These three results multiply and develop into increased self confidence, higher self efficacy, and of course, a self-perpetuating desire to keep learning.

At the youngest ages (toddler and preschool), the difference between a Montessori environment and a non-Montessori environment is astounding. In addition to the academic pride and ability that our kids develop, their ownership in the classroom, their emotional and academic maturity, and their responsibility for their own actions stand out as incredible life skills for all kids to learn — no matter their age.

No one else is doing anything like this in early childhood. Most day cares are working to get kids to sit quietly on a line, share, and not fight with each other. That’s what we would be doing too if Dr. Maria Montessori hadn’t created another option that we at The Fulton School have all discovered in some way or another.

Do you want to learn more about Montessori? Do you have a friend who wants to see — really see — how differently a Montessori classroom works? We’d love for you to set up an Observation Day — your own window into a Fulton School classroom.

Homework, Part 4: The Parent Partnership

Homework makes some families absolutely miserable. (I don’t mean eye rolling and sighing because it has to get done — that’s good frustration to barrel through in order to develop grit, self-discipline, and time management.) I mean regular melt downs, tears, lying, yelling (parent AND child) — complete disruption of the household because of homework.

One of our philosophical premises here, based on Dr. Montessori’s work and much more research in the century following her, is that all children want to please the adults around them and they are doing the best they can with what they have.  We also believe that every sincere feeling is involuntary.  Staunch, stubborn, regular refusal is therefore likely not misbehavior, but rather a symptom of something else.

If misery is part of your homework routine, then we need to partner together to tackle it.  Your child is not learning constructive coping skills or building academic skills in that environment.  When we partner together, we will try to figure out the root of the problem. Often there is some cognitive obstacle and the resistance is just a symptom.

We will talk through your observations and the teachers’ observations. Testing may be appropriate to identify some hidden obstacle in the way your child processes. Maybe he/she is overscheduled.  Maybe the homework assigned is overwhelming, and we need to back off.  Whatever the situation, we will analyze it (and change it if we have to) together until it has improved. This is what the TFS parent partnership is all about–working together to make sure each child is growing up in the environment he/she needs in order to thrive!

Homework, Part 1

Homework is perhaps one of the most dreaded concepts for most kids (and many of their parents). There is a lot of research out there about the effectiveness of homework and it’s pretty mixed, but I believe that it’s mixed because not all homework assignments are equally valuable, and different kids learn with different rhythms (some absorbing everything during the day and shutting down at night and others needing to revisit concepts and practice later when it’s quiet).  

At TFS we believe that homework has a place, but it is not a measurement of how academic a program is or how successful a student will be.  Here are a few of our guidelines.

1. Homework does NOT need to start early.
Young children have such absorbent minds, if they are stimulated, they are soaking it up.  They also have concrete minds, so they need materials to accompany most conceptual work.  Until they have truly internalized abstract concepts (around 3rd/4th grade) they shouldn’t be doing work that isn’t concrete.  Their “homework” is to read with you, play, create, and engage in concrete chores and work at home.  Many schools have started giving homework as early as preschool, but research shows that kids who have such homework don’t perform any differently on developmental benchmarks than kids who had no homework.  Anecdotally, many of them just grow to hate school and hate “learning.”

2Homework should be purposeful.
We do not believe busy work is good for anyone, especially when it takes away from downtime, jobs, or other enrichment activities kids may have after school.  Once we start giving homework, it should be providing students with practice as they develop a particular skill, preparation for class, such as reading ahead of time, or projects and papers that are too lengthy to finish within the class time.

3. Length of time varies.
We don’t want anyone spending every waking minute doing homework, so we try to curb the amount of work to 40-60 minutes in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, and 30 minutes per class on average in Upper School, but this will vary. Students who get more accomplished during the school day will have less than kids who need downtime and play time during the school day.  Kids who work slower will spend more time on homework than kids who work quickly. As they get older and homework is more project-based, students will have nights without work between units, and then nights with more work as a deadline approaches (much like the professional work place).

On balance though, we believe that seven hours of school plus some extra work many nights to practice or prepare or complete a project (for our abstract thinkers) is plenty of work for a student to achieve and excel in college and beyond.  We’re aiming for a sweet spot between pushing them outside their comfort zone and burning them out in their stress zones.  Fill the extra time with other wonderful activities for their brains (like boredom and chores!) and time with you (even if you parent adolescents!).

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Things Our Kids Say, Part 4: “We Didn’t Do Anything Today”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

Parent: How was your day? 
Child: Fine.

Parent: What did you do?  
Child: Nothing.

Parent: What did you learn? 
Child: Nothing.

Some of us get one-word answers. Others might get a litany of negative spewing that may be hard to believe (Can things really be that bad?).

What kids usually mean: Most of the one-word-answers are coming from kids who are trying to end the conversation–they’re not in the mood to talk.  Maybe they’re exhausted from the day and just need some down time.  Maybe they’re still processing everything that happened.  Maybe they’ve been holding it together all day and just need to fall apart a little.  Kids who spew or vent (kids who have a long list of negatives) are often processing as well; they just need to let it out and then it’s done and over in their minds.  We’re not that different as adults.  Many of us probably collapse on the couch after a long day and need 15 minutes before we can start on dinner or the evening activities.  Or we need to go off on one event that bugged us (we *might* exaggerate as we vent) to get it out of our system, before we can see that the rest of our day wasn’t bad.  Whether they process internally or spew, kids usually just need some time.  You probably shouldn’t take any of it very seriously… maybe even give them some time before you start a conversation.  If you just make time together, they will often come around and share their thoughts when they’re ready.

What can you say?  It’s important to give kids the appropriate and accurate words for what they really feel.  If they are giving you one-word answers, you can request that they just let you know that they don’t feel like talking right then.  At some point when you’re having a good conversation, you can ask them if they prefer you not question them at the end of the day when they get in the car (or whenever it happens).  Ask them when would be a good time to talk about their day.  Adolescents often want to talk later at night.  Some kids may want you alone without a sibling listening.  It’s appropriate to communicate that you need to talk with each other at some point, but let them have a say about when.

If your child is one who vents, it’s important not to buy into it (assuming you don’t think there is a true crisis) anymore than you believe that the one-word child really did “nothing” all day.  Resist the temptation to get pulled in and believe it all or to try to solve the problem.  Depending how often it happens, you may even limit the sharing to something positive–something he did for someone else, something she learned, or something good that happened.  Otherwise you could be rewarding a pattern of negativity with your attention.  There is all sorts of research demonstrating that we have to train ourselves to be positive–and that we’re happier when we do.  Again, at some point when you’re having a good conversation together, you can point out the pattern of negativity and reflect on that with them.  The more they are thinking through what they do and why, the more self-awareness they will develop over the years.  They’ll usually need your help with this, but it will pay off.

Kara Douglass
Head of School


Our Mission – Part 6: The Partnership

“We create a partnership between parents, teachers, and students, knowing that parental involvement is key to the success of the students and the school.”  

This last component of our mission is acknowledging the fact that we are a village.  The more we all work together, the better off our children will be.  Growing up is hard.  Parenting is hard.  School can be hard.  Sometimes we are walking a tightrope; other times it feels like we are in a mosh pit.  We have to communicate with each other, trust each other, respect each other, and support each other to get through this messy, complicated, foggy journey.

We encourage you to come to games, field trips and events so that you know the kids, the teachers and other parents–both at your child’s age, but also older and younger.  We encourage you to share your concerns with us, and we will share ours with you.  Let us know what’s going on in your children’s lives. All of their experiences are interrelated, and it helps us nurture and teach the “whole” child if we know the whole child.  The better we know your children, the better we can meet their needs.

Additionally, as an independent school, we are completely dependent on your support.  We don’t have a parish, synagogue or government to back us up.  So we are dependent on your support (your time, your talents, and your treasure!), both as current parents and after your kids graduate, in order to grow and thrive.

Our Mission – Part 5: Diversity of Cultures

At Fulton School, we celebrate a diversity of cultures, learning styles, talents, and personal goals.  Our definition of diversity is big, and our dreams for our students are even bigger.  We don’t want to merely “tolerate” differences (although sometimes that’s necessary), but we hope to instill a true appreciation in our students who will spend a majority of their childhood feeling bad about the ways they are different.

We want the quiet kids to appreciate the gregarious kids.

We want the talkative kids to appreciate the pensive kids.

We want the creative types to appreciate the linear thinkers and logical minds to enjoy the subjective minds.

We want our students to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, to have a sense of respect for various races, religions, world views, and cultures (even varying family cultures within the suburbs).

All of this information and experience contribute to the children’s own sense of pride in who they are–a frank acknowledgement of their strengths–and to their developing gratefulness for others in their lives.

This tone of true appreciation helps children take risks and develop self-confidence, kindness, empathy, and community.  We hope it removes unhealthy pressures and unnecessary obstacles. And ultimately, we hope it makes the world a little bit better place.

Our Mission – Part 4: The “How”

headimagesThe second component of our philosophy (our ‘how’) is to create a joyful and inspired community that develops communication skills, critical thinking skills, and creativity in every child through relevant, hands-on, student-centered teaching. Joyful and inspired is our goal–there is no reason that school has to be a necessary evil in our children’s lives. Humans love learning, we are built to learn, and children even more so than adults. Environments that make learning miserable are getting in the way of the child’s natural development and purpose. We want to free them up to learn as they can, rather than bogging them down in the needs of the institution or policy.

Then we delineate some of the primary skills we are aiming to develop–reading, writing, talking, arguing, discussing, presenting, persuading, taking initiative, articulating thoughts, and speaking up are examples of the communication skills we are working on. Summarizing, inferencing, critiquing, discerning, connecting, dissecting, analyzing, deducing, and concluding are all examples of the critical thinking skills we’re developing. And creativity grows out of a solid subject-area knowledge base in addition to the freedom to take risks, try something new, think differently, play, experiment, build, try, and collaborate. The only way to practice all of these skills (and they need lots of practice!) is by giving students the time and the space and the context to practice them in relevant, hands-on, and child-centered classes.

It’s amazing how a simple shift in goals can change the tone of the entire institution. Most schools focus on achievement and academic and athletic excellence. They focus so much on content, memorization, test scores, and getting into college that they lose sight of the child who is in front of them. When we shift from achievement to joy, from excellence to inspiration, from product to process, and from content to skills, the atmosphere shifts entirely. The irony is that we can still achieve, excel, and attend top colleges, if that’s our aim, without sacrificing character, joy and love of learning along the way.

Our Mission – Part 3: Montessori

montyThe next part of our mission comes in the form of our philosophy. This is the how of our goal. We believe the Montessori philosophy provides the best opportunity to build confidence, character and leadership in our students. I could talk about the Montessori philosophy all year (and it actually takes a full year or longer to get a certification in Montessori because of its complexity), but I believe there are three primary reasons why Montessori is the best opportunity to develop these characteristics.

First, Dr. Montessori started with the end game and worked backwards when she developed her philosophy and curriculum. Who do we want our kids to be as adults? What skills are most constructive in adults? What character traits are most important in adults? She never had the adult far from her mind as she focused on the child who would become the adult. This is what proponents of 21st century education are just now doing — and it’s a good thing — but Dr. Montessori was thinking that way 110 years ago.

Secondly, Dr. Montessori observed where children are developmentally and built her curriculum and philosophy to work with nature, rather than against it. We cannot just decide to give our students confidence; they develop it as nature intended and we have to use nature if they are going to develop successfully — in this case by providing as many opportunities and pushes for their independence as possible. A dependent child cannot and will not develop self-confidence, for example. The entire program is build around who children are and how they grow, rather than on the needs of the adults or the institution.

Lastly, Dr. Montessori integrated the whole child into her curriculum. Most curricula simply address the acquisition of information (like spelling rules) or the practice of a cognitive skill (like addition), but Dr. Montessori interwove the practice of concentration, the practice of conflict resolution, the practice of collaboration, etc. into her materials, schedule and annual goals for the classroom. Respect of others is just as important (and therefore takes just as much time) as math or reading. If we value character, leadership and intrinsic motivation, we have to carve time to practice those skills during the week. She saw the need for the time it would take and set the precedent that we all need to be willing to give our values that time.