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Friday, August 31, 2012

More Homework, Please! (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

   For many, the first week of school is coming to an end and this means many parents are probably wondering about the H word: homework.   Some parents are hoping there will not be too much homework for various reasons while others are saying “Bring it on!” In terms of research, the jury is still out.  There are staunch supporters on both sides.  For me, however, I was on the fence but now I say “More homework, please!” So, why the switch?

   Well, I had an epiphany this summer.  Last year, my son’s Math teacher gave him a little booklet called “The Math Whiz” and you are supposed to play a magic game with it.  It is basically six pages stapled together with numbers written all over on five of them. The game goes like this: He would ask someone to pick a number on the first page and told them to keep it a secret. Then, he would turn each page and ask if the secret number was on that page until he got to the last page. Meanwhile he is doing some kind of computation in his head and magically arrives at your secret number! He would repeatedly play this game with our family and friends.  He was completely indulged by their reactions. “Wow, how did you do that?!” or “You are so smart!” He would flash a big smile, and not reveal the magic, but instead told you to pick another secret number. There begins another round of the game. Well, just a few days ago while we were cleaning his homework area, he came across The Math Whiz! Of course, he wanted to play the game again.  Guess what happened this time?

    Yes, you got it! My math whiz struggled with the game. Although he arrived at the correct answer, he kept getting confused when doing the mental computations.  Of course, this was a great teachable moment and I certainly seized it by letting him know that we easily forget what we learn if we do not practice it regularly. You can look at any dementia or Alzheimer's research and find this conclusive evidence. It also helped that my husband chimed in at this point. I will not chant “Practice makes perfect” because I feel this is not a realistic goal parents ought to be promoting and given my child’s personality, this will only provoke anxiety in him and negatively impact his academic performance. However, I will happily say “Practice makes you sharper!” and that alone is enough for me to chant “More homework, please!”

    Of course, there are other bonuses too: when doing their homework, they are away from the tv, computer,  and video games.  Moreover, they cannot get into mischief or trouble if they are busy doing their homework.  Also, homework is a concrete way to beautifully connect the school to home life, which research conclusively states is key in a child’s academic achievement.  As always, parents are the most important role models for their kids so below are ten strategies to use when encouraging good homework habits.
10 Strategies for Homework Help
1.    Model a positive attitude about homework and education, in general.
2.    Have a designated homework area with minimal distractions and good lighting. 
3.    Make sure materials/supplies are readily available.
4.    Give your child a healthy snack before starting homework.
5.    Use planners or agenda books to help organize their materials and time for homework.
6.    Encourage your child to do the easier assignments first so a feeling of accomplishment is experienced rather than frustration with harder homework. Some education experts advocate for the reverse order so the child is not exhausted and frustrated by the time they get to the more difficult homework.  Ideally, if you have multiple assignments, you can do the easy-hard-easy order. You be the judge of which order works best for your child.
7.    Be available and look for opportunities to praise your child.
8.    Engage in “homework-like” activities such as reading a book or balancing a checkbook/online accounts while your child does homework.
9.    If your child needs help, provide guidance rather than giving your child the answers.
10.  Give your child breaks if necessary, especially when frustrated. If your child regularly gets frustrated then consult with his teacher about any potential, academic difficulties. 

Best wishes for a wonderful school year!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Advocating for Your Child with Special Needs (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

    Many students across the United States will start their new school year next week. It is a time of full of excitement to meet new teachers, make new friends, and learn new things! While this may also be true for parents with children who have special needs, but it is also intertwined with feelings of fear and anxiety about what the new school year will bring for their children.  This is doubly true for me since I now have two children with special needs.

    My regular, blog readers know that I have a three year old daughter who was born a micro preemie with many health complications. She is also hard of hearing and has been wearing hearing aids since she was one year old.  Well now, my seven years old son was diagnosed as being deaf in his left ear over the summer. Advocating is not a new thing for us. However, advocating for a second grader looks quite different than for a toddler.

    One or more accommodations in the classroom will be necessary for children with special needs. An example may be of what educators call “preferential seating,” which my son will undoubtedly need in the classroom.  This is not a big deal for my toddler daughter because the class sizes are smaller and more staff is available in the classroom to assist with whatever is necessary.  However, preferential seating will be a challenge to implement for my son.  On paper, preferential seating seems like an easy accommodation to make after you figure out the location of the seating (left front for my son). Practically, this is much harder to implement and this is why: a dynamic and effective teacher is constantly moving around the classroom!

    Advocating for the accommodations and making sure they will be implemented will be challenging, but the most significant difference when advocating for a toddler versus a school-age child is the support system that is available.  With the very young, there is a team of professionals who are working with you in your home, school, and in the community to guide you along your child’s development. For our daughter, this meant we had the support and expertise of the speech and language therapists, special education teachers, ASL teachers,occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists, just to name a few.  Once they reach school-age, the parent is pretty much on their own to get the advocacy ball rolling and staying afloat along the way.  The parent has to be the driving force and the child’s strongest advocate.  There will be high points and there will be low points along this journey. Below are strategies to keep in mind when advocating for your child with special needs.  I will use my son’s hearing problem as an example to illustrate the points.

7 Strategies When Advocating for Your Child

1. Take referrals seriously.  There are a number of ways a concern about your child’s development can be raised. For our son, he was the one who initially raised the issue and soon after he failed his hearing screen at school. The school nurse sent a referral note and we immediately contacted the appropriate professionals. We could have easily ignored the note and gone about our business, especially considering that he had been doing extremely well academically. Instead, we took the referral seriously.

2. Identify the special needs.  Once a referral is made, there will be a series of tests or evaluations that need to take place in order to properly diagnose a special need.  The nurse sending a referral note that he failed the hearing screen for his left ear is not enough.  I say this because the identification process is time consuming, tiring, and frustrating.  It will become so easy to give up and not follow-through with subsequent recommendations.  You might even have to seek second opinions if things do not sound right to you.  Without completing this identification process, you cannot move forward in the advocacy.

3. Gather pertinent documents. As a trained clinician, we have this mantra we follow that says “if it’s not written, it didn’t happen.”  Make a file for your child’s medical record of all the referrals, test results, and recommendations.  If possible, have electronic copies of them which will come in handy later on in the advocacy process. Organizational skills will come in handy at this point.

4. Contact the school principal in writing.  After you’ve gathered all of the pertinent information from the professionals, you are now ready to contact the principal.  The correspondence should be in writing and you should include the medical documentation (this is why the electronic copy becomes convenient). This will speed up the process and you will have a "paper" trail to refer back to.

Also, keep in mind that timing is important.  This is just my opinion, but I do feel that sometimes contacting the principal too early may not necessarily work in your favor.  For example, if you contact the school too early, let’s say early in the summer, you might not get the response you want right away. Moreover, if the timing is off you might actually risk getting the attention you deserve.  In other words, sometimes “the early bird does not always get the worm.”  For my son, I had all of the documents ready about a month ago, but it did not feel like the right time to contact the principal then.  Even though my super-organized, early bird husband insisted I do.

This week was back to school for staff so I figured this is a good time to shoot an email to the principal. Sure enough, in less than an hour the assistant principal calls me to address of my concerns and schedule a meeting to discuss what kind of accommodations would be warranted for our son.  Of course I did not gloat about this to my husband! 

5. Be prepared for the meeting with the school.  Make sure you and your partner discuss the talking points in advance and write them down.  Those meetings can easily get sidetracked and become emotionally charged so it is crucial you have a visual reminder to keep you on track.  You want to be able to identify the special need and ask for concrete accommodations.  Advance research will be key. Also, take at least two copies of the documents you emailed earlier for convenience, just in case they do not have them at hand. 

6. Advocacy does not have to be adversarial.  Really, you can effectively advocate for your child without having to get into an emotionally charged battle! Keep in mind that the teachers and  the staff also want what is best for your child.  If you are not convinced then consider how the school would look in terms of reputation if their students do not perform well.  Working within the system is a much better and effective approach than working against them.  This will create a much better working relationship with the school and at the end of the day will benefit your child.  However, again worth mentioning that, we as the parents, have to be the best and strongest advocates for our kids.

7. Teach your child self-advocacy.  We have talked with our son about self-advocacy and what that means. However, we also explain to him whenever we advocate for him so he can learn from our examples not only to self-advocate, but also to be proud of whom he is no matter what challenges he may encounter.  The look on his face was priceless when I told him that his assistant principal had called!

Friday, August 10, 2012

A South Asian Parenting Dilemma: Push or Foster? (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

    In the Basnyat household, whether to push or to foster our children’s development is a constant topic of discussion. My husband, who has an interesting background of spending a good chunk of his formative years in the United States (former diplomat’s kid) but also spent much of his childhood in Nepal, and then came to the US for college. He decided to hang out here ever since, get married and raise a family. The whole nine yards! He plays for the Push Team.
    I, as a Nepali-American who primarily grew up in America and not to mention with an extensive Psychology background, am playing for the Foster Team.  We both want our children to do well academically, have good social relationships, and lead healthy and happy lives. However, by no means am a Tiger Mom and he a Wolf Dad.  Physical punishment and scolding are out of the question for us, but praise is a favorite strategy.  We truly want to take the Best of Both Worlds Approach (BBWA) in our parenting.  To the best of my knowledge, this is not an actual theoretical paradigm, but this is how we describe our multicultural parenting style.

    The BBWA is also the reason why we have this parenting dilemma. Had we simply chosen one path (Eastern or Western) to parenting, we would not have to debate so much.  Given our personalities, ambitions, and professional backgrounds, there is no end in sight for these debates. Every time he says something to the effect of “we have to push the kids to reach their potential” I quickly offer a myriad of word choices like foster, cultivate, support, encourage, etc. to replace “push.”  This is how our discussion may sound like.

The Academics

Husband: “I think it is important for him to do practice work (Math, Reading, etc.) outside of his homework.  The kid is really smart and we need to push his limits to see how far he can go.”

Me: “Yes, he is smart and I also want him to excel, but I don’t feel pushing is the best way to accomplish this.  He is so young and at this point, learning should be fun and enjoyable so he would want to do it more rather than get frustrated and avoid it.” Sometimes, I may pull one of these stunts. “At this developmental stage, it should be about the process of learning not so much the product.” I mean, really, who could argue with a point like that?

The Sport

Me: “I am really concerned about the time he is spending in soccer.  He seems too tired to do his homework or get any down time.”

Husband: “He loves playing soccer and he needs all the practice he can get to be better at it. He has so much potential.”

Me: “He does love to play and he is good at it.  How about we stick to one sport at a time so it’s not too much for him or for us?” My husband agrees. It does not always work this way.

The Musical Instrument

Husband: “Shouldn’t he be playing an instrument like a violin or clarinet by now? You used to play the violin.”

Me: “They start in third or fourth grade. He’s only in the first. I started in the third grade and there was too much pressure so I gave it up in junior high. I really don’t think that kind of pressure is good for him.”

Son: “I don’t want to play anything I have to blow, it’s too hard (he's asthmatic). I want to play the violin or the drums.”

Husband and Me: “No drums! Maybe a violin or guitar, we’ll see.”  To be continued...

    So, you can see from above how the Push vs. Foster discussion may transpire in a parenting conversation. I feel we do not have to “push” our kids into anything and thereby run a high risk of this pushing backfiring on us.  If you are skeptical, try this experiment at home: have your significant other stand in front of you and you push him or her from the back.  What happens? Although Physics was never a strong suit of mine, but I believe this is called Resistance.  In Psychology, we call it Rebellion.  This usually is not a pretty phase and I will use all the strategies in my parenting toolbox to avoid this parent-child dynamic.   

Do you believe in pushing or fostering your child to reach their potential?