A Little Magic: Up-level Lessons in a Blink

UntitledOne of the challenges we may face when teaching high ability learners is that sometimes we underestimate how quickly they may complete and master a lesson.

In these situations, many teachers have an alternative bag of tricks to keep students engaged. However, these activities can require unnecessary planning, transition time, and may even reinforce a student’s perception that school lessons are “too easy” and not intended for him/her. Before moving on to other things, teachers should consider whether simply nudging the lesson up a notch might better serve students’ needs.

No illusions. Here’s a little magic I’ve seen to up-level common grade school lessons in a blink…

READING:

1). Spellbinding Spelling

  • Assignment: Put each of your spelling words in a sentence.
  • Challenge: Choose five of your spelling words and write each word in a sentence. Every word in your sentence must begin with the same letter as your spelling word. Your sentence must make sense.

2). Zen for the Venn Diagram

  • Assignment: Use a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast two subjects in your reading.
  • Challenge: Explain why this comparison is interesting or important.

3). Character Trait Transformation:

  • Assignment: Identify the character traits of the main character, using evidence from the text to support your answer.
  • Challenge: Your character is moving and packing a suitcase. If your character could only pack three things, what would they be? Draw/describe these items and explain why each would be chosen. Use evidence from the text.

4). Levitating Main Idea/Details

  • Assignment: Identify the main idea and key supporting details.
  • Challenge: Write an 8-line poem that expresses emotions or feelings about the main idea.

5). Conjuring Context Clues:

  • Assignment: Guess the definition of the underlined word using the context clues in the sentence . (Context clues are words in a sentence that help readers to infer the meaning of a word by providing a definition or explanation of the underlined word, a synonym, or an antonym. )
  • Challenge: Write a sentence using the underlined word that provides a context clue about its meaning. Identify your context clue and how it helps the reader to infer the word’s meaning. (Note: The teacher may assign a challenge vocabulary word from a student’s reading or a list.)

+++++++++++++++++

MATHEMATICS

1). Computation Capers

  • Assignment: Add/subtract all of the multi-digit numbers. Check your work using inverse operations.
  • Challenge: Choose one or two problems. Arrange the digits to create a new problem with the largest/smallest possible sum/difference. Solve that problem. Explain how you know that you have found the largest sum/difference.

2). Word Problems Presto-Chango

  • Assignment: Solve the word problem.
  • Challenge: Look at the word problem that you just solved. Create a new problem that (1) requires the solver to solve two more math problems in order to find the answer; or (2) contains different numbers, but has the same answer.

3).  Area/Perimeter Transformation

  • Assignment: Find the Area/Perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet.
  • Challenge: Find the total area/perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet. Create a drawing that has the total area/perimeter as the shapes on the page. (Your drawing does/does not have to be to scale.)

4). Fraction Flip

  • Assignment: Solve the problems that use fractions.
  • Challenge: Create a lesson that teaches a student how to solve one of the fraction problems in this assignment. Make sure that you explain why the student should do each step. Now “flip” roles—become the teacher and teach your lesson to a group of students.

5).  Astounding Rounding

  • Assignment: Round the numbers to the nearest _____.
  • Challenge: Choose three of the problems you solved. When would you need to round numbers like this in your everyday life? For three of the problems, create an example from real life when rounding the numbers in the problem may make things astoundingly easier!

…Abracadabra!

(They say a good magician never reveals his tricks. But sometimes differentiating for high ability learners requires just a nudge, and no magic at all.)

On The Course to Success: Putting Learning In Perspective

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This summer, I have been working on my golf game. Putting looks so simple; the ball should simply roll along and plop right in the hole. But it’s not that easy.

Similarly, parents and educators seeking the right strokes to put high ability children on the course to success may struggle putting the learning journey into perspective: What if we can’t afford the summer enrichment program? What if my child chooses skateboarding over piano? What if he is not in the accelerated class? What if she’d rather play with friends than do the robot-making competition? Is my child achieving enough?

 How do we lower our handicap?

Lately, in an effort to improve my putting, I’ve been reading Putting Out of Your Mind by Dr. Bob Rotella[1], an esteemed sports psychologist and golf expert, and the bestselling author of Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. And for parents of high ability children, three of his putting tips are especially on par:

“There is no such thing as perfect putting mechanics. There is no perfect way to roll the ball.”

 Dr. Rotella asserts that there are, not one, but many ways to putt a ball so that it lands in the hole. He observes:

Golfers today are inundated with information and pseudo-information about the mechanics of putting. The implication of much of it is that a perfect stroke exists and that if you could only attain it, you would putt perfectly…So we have many players in hot pursuit of the perfect putting stroke. The more putts they miss, the more convinced they become that their stroke is to blame. The more information they get about the stroke, the more lost they become in thoughts of mechanics. (129-130)

Just as there are many ways to putt, there are many ways to learn and excel. Although every child needs fundamental skills, a method or “stroke” that works to inspire one child may not be the best for another. Some children may love spending time on computers. Others relish current events discussions and debates, or visiting the library, or building forts, or hiking in the woods. There are countless ways to help our children become lifelong learners when we recognize and build upon their passions. Rotella advises, “Fall in love with the stroke you have. It’s more than good enough to get the ball into the hole.” (136).

“To gain control, give up control”

When it comes to putting, Dr. Rotella advises that “trying too hard” can actually impede success. He observes:

…[T]he main reason trying too hard doesn’t work is that it invariably diminishes the chances of making a good stroke. It introduces doubt to the mind. It tightens the muscles. It robs the player of his natural talent and destroys his rhythm and flow. (51)

Rotella asserts that when it comes to putting, golfers need to relax, focus on the target, and stroke the ball. He explains that “giving up control” does not mean to stop caring, but to avoid becoming too consumed with the importance of the result.

Similarly, learners falter when focused too much on insuring that every stroke toward academic excellence results in success. Misses are part of any challenging game; we learn from them, grow, and move on. Like good putters, children need to relax and embrace the process of learning, practicing and performing.

 “You’ll make your best stroke and hole the most putts if you think only of your target.”

 When putting, Dr. Rotello advises that players focus on the target – a simple and natural method for sinking a ball into a hole.

Like golf, learning is a course dotted with beautiful, inspiring targets, some of which are close, and some of which are off in the distance. Solving a unique problem. Creating a beautiful composition. Mastering an art. Discovering new knowledge. Making the world a better place.

Yet, unlike on the golf course, these targets are not marked with tall poles and brightly colored flags. Putting learning in perspective requires helping our children not to get caught up in the strokes, but to develop a life-long love of learning, envisioning meaningful targets, and continually taking aim.

[1] Rotella, Robert J., and Robert Cullen. Putting Out of Your Mind. London: Pocket, 2005.

Gifted MisBehaviors: A View Through Two Lenses

img_2497Now that I am approaching fifty, my eyes are changing and I have two pairs of glasses. My “close” glasses are for reading. My “far” glasses are for watching plays from the balcony. It is easy to get these lenses mixed up, but I can’t bring myself to do the bifocal thing because, let’s face it, it’s difficult to adjust to two lenses.

Like with my glasses situation, I use two “educational lenses” in my roles this year as both an elementary school assistant principal and a district-wide K-8 gifted coordinator.

As a gifted program coordinator, I see that teachers and parents readily refer children for programming based upon “gifted behaviors,” such as insatiable curiosity, intensity, and the ability to ask and understand complex questions.

As an assistant principal who manages much of the school’s discipline, children are referred for different reasons–most which involve a failure to follow school norms.   As with my mixed up glasses, I sometimes find myself looking at misbehavior through a “gifted” lens, and a variety of referral questions emerge…

Misbehavior Referral? Student doesn’t stop activities when it’s time to stop, and has difficulty transitioning from one activity to the other. Gifted Referral? Why is the student so engrossed in activities? Gifted students can find it difficult to stop an activity when their minds are engaged. Is the student exploring them in depth? Could it be difficult for this student to leave certain activities and subjects behind? Would this student benefit from some uninterrupted time to work on a passion project?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student pushes humor too far and is therefore disrespectful. This was not a time for jokes. Gifted Referral? Verbally gifted students find plays on words, figurative language, and humor to be irresistible. Is there an opportunity that would help this child to explore humor and figurative language in a positive way?

Misbehavior Referral? Student’s responses do not match the situation; the student gets upset or angry over insignificant things and acts out. Gifted Referral? Gifted students can be sensitive and emotionally intense. Some are perfectionists. Why was this student so upset? Could perfectionism or an acute sense of justice have triggered the behavior? Would this student benefit from an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about these ideals?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student keeps talking out of turn when asked to be quiet. Gifted Referral? For a gifted student, the ability to use advanced vocabulary and to express oneself eloquently may be a source of self esteem and pride. Although this student needs to listen and show respect for others, how could we make sure that this need for challenge and expression in the area of language arts is met in the classroom?

Misbehavior Referral? Student appears to have no respect for the rules and questions everything. Gifted Referral? Does this student understand the reasons for the rules? When it comes to students with a profound sense of justice, the reasons behind the rules matter.   Creatively gifted students may challenge the rules and prefer to try “their own way.” Could this student who “bumps up against the rules” be a strong candidate for gifted programming?

Of course we cannot presume that misbehavior is related to giftedness, nor can we ignore it for that reason. All children, including gifted ones, need limits; in schools, we need consistent, respectful discipline, and appropriate consequences for misbehavior. “Turning a blind eye” to misbehavior by calling it “giftedness” would not only be unsafe, it would cast aside our responsibility as educators.

However, as we see and respond to misbehavior, taking a glance through the “gifted” lens could produce a revelation. Among the discipline referrals, might we catch a glimpse of a gifted student who is paradoxically being overlooked because of “gifted misbehavior”?

For me, switching spectacles back and forth may work in the short term, but for the long term, it may be time to adjust to one pair of glasses through which I can see “close” and “far.”

Likewise with gifted misbehaviors; time to put on the bifocals.

Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners in the Core Classroom? Try Sitting in Their Seats

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As we begin the year, how often do we educators see things through the eyes of the diverse, gifted learners in our classrooms?

Perhaps the best way to start is by putting ourselves in their chairs.

As summer days come to an end, a useful ritual is to check out the view from each student’s perspective by sitting in each of their places. How easily can each student see the projector screen? A talkative friend? A view of the playground?

Considering what students “see” can help teachers eliminate distractions and physical obstructions to learning; it can also help us find new ways to motivate high potential, gifted learners.

The National Association of Gifted Students defines “giftedness” as follows:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports). [1]

Regardless of what “definition,” most of us educators believe that gifted learners exist and expect to encounter them. So, when setting up a classroom, why not take a few moments to “take a seat” as a gifted child at the beginning of the new school year? Here are some focal points to consider:

(1). Role Models and Vision: Can I see a picture of an inspiring adult role model who shares my gender, culture, and/or race—a depiction that celebrates his or her contributions and achievements? What does that picture communicate to me about my future possibilities and potential?

(2). High Level Questions: Is there a provocative, deep question that captures my attention and curiosity? Is there a question that I find fascinating to discuss with my friends at school and my family at home?   How could the themes or topics we explore in the classroom this year be important or relevant to my life?[2]

(3). Rich Vocabulary: Is there a new, rich vocabulary word presented that would be fun to learn and use? How might it relate to math, science, or the world around me?

(4). Personal Interests: Is there any place in this classroom for my own “learning agenda?” Does this classroom have a place for me to explore and share what I love to learn? Do I see something that shows me that the teacher or any other students might want to  hear and talk about my interests and passions?

If answers to the above questions are difficult to spot, some simple changes to the classroom landscape could positively impact instruction to meet the needs of gifted students.

And once we consider the view from the students’ seats, our classrooms may provide a better vantage point to “see” more gifted students than we ever expected.

 

 

 

[1] National Association for Gifted Children website: http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness

 

[2] For question examples, see “Essential Questions.” Essential Questions. Authentic Education, 2013. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://essentialquestions.org/random_questions.lasso&gt;.

 

Spring Break Learning: A Nugget from The Grand Canyon

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Grand Canyon, AZ

What approach works best when helping learners to overcome academic challenges? As educators, it can be helpful to reflect on our own learning struggles. In fact, hiking in the Grand Canyon over this Spring Break, I experienced a memorable learning challenge at the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Though I wanted to continue down the path at the start of the Grandview Trail, I was uncertain about how to approach it, and my knees were shaking with apprehension. Before barely descending, I returned to the top, defeated. But a little later, with the help of our guide, I tried again and made it far enough to enjoy some incredible views of the canyon.

My journey on this historical mining trail uncovered some valuable nuggets for struggling students (like me):

  • Students are most likely to persist if the goal is personally relevant and meaningful to them. The reason I overcame the challenge is because I really wanted to explore the canyon.
  • Students must recognize that “trying again” is part of the learning process. When I first climbed back out of the canyon, I would have been finished with this trail had I not understood that “trying again” was a ready option.
  • Students must feel comfortable asking for help. As I hiker, I was thankful to have a knowledgeable, friendly guide who kindly helped me on this trail.
  • Sometimes a student’s difficulty may be based more upon self perceptions of ability, rather than actual ability. Teachers need to express their confidence in their student’s ability to meet challenges. Hearing that others were confident in my ability helped me immensely on this trail.
  • Sometimes students need the opportunity to work through challenges slowly. Accomplishing my goal at a speed that was manageable for me brought success.  I’m glad I wasn’t being timed on this one.
  • Laughter is key. When hiking in new terrain, a laugh and a little humor helped to make learning fun and to keep difficulties in perspective.  Laughter in the face of challenge is empowering.
  • It really works to break down challenging tasks, set individual student goals, and celebrate success. Catching up to the rest of the group was not going to happen for me on this hike. However, I left feeling that I accomplished a great deal. My guide helped me adjust my goal to meet my learning needs—even if this was just to navigate the first leg of the journey. When the other hikers returned from their longer journey, I still had my own accomplishment to celebrate. I left the canyon wanting more…
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Hardened Grand Canyon Hiker

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

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“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not jus for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”

 

[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.

 

Class Discussions: Laying the Groundwork

In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill[1] suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:

Factors that negatively impact discussions:

  • Interrupting
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of preparation
  • Difficult (sensitive)topics
  • Side conversations
  • Judgment of people
  • Facial expressions
  • Distractions
  • Attention Seeking

Factors that positively impact discussions

  • Engaging topic
  • Everyone talks
  • Feels natural
  • Everyone pays attention
  • Everyone’s opinion heard
  • Possible to change your mind
  • Many possible answers
  • Everyone treats others with respect

We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.

As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.

Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.

Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.

Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year.  Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.

 

 

[1] Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic   classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.

 

My Child Is “Bored” In School: Suggestions for Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences

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Parent-teacher conferences are an excellent forum for addressing questions and concerns about student progress.  Yet, when face to face with a child’s teacher, a concern such as “I think that my child is bored in school,” can be difficult to articulate. Here are a few suggestions for parents with concerns about insufficient challenge:

  • Be specific: Children’s academic strengths can vary with respect to subject area. If you feel that your child is insufficiently challenged, is there a certain subject, such as reading or math, that is of concern? Is there a particular topic such as spelling or multiplication that your child feels is too easy? If available, bring examples of your child’s work in these areas. The more specific your concern, the better able the teacher will be to address it.
  • Focus on Growth: We want children to be challenged because every child deserves to grow academically and be engaged in school. With respect to growth, here are a few questions to ask your child’s teacher: What are my child’s areas of strength and/or extra focus? How can I provide support at home? How are areas of growth/strength communicated to my child at school? What improvement has been observed in my child’s work since the beginning of the school year?
  • Share What You Know: If you have them, bring in samples of stories, writing, or projects that your child creates at home. This can provide the teacher with valuable information about your child’s interests and academic potential.
  • Avoid “Side-Stepping”: A child’s complaint about “boredom” may sometimes indicate struggle with the less “glitzy,” but important aspects of learning such as proofreading, revising, computation practice, or even problem-solving. It is true that “skill practice” needs to be balanced with opportunities for exploration, creativity, and fun. Yet, attention to detail, perseverance, and accuracy are important for success in school and beyond. When advocating for your high-ability child at conferences, do not sidestep these “challenges” — ask your child’s teacher about ways to support and encourage your child in these areas at home.
  • Keep Your Child Accountable for Behavior: For parents and teachers of high ability children, behavior issues in the classroom can be a “red flag” indicating that the child needs more challenge. In light of this, it may be tempting to empathize with your child’s feelings of frustration and look away from negative behaviors. But this response undermines learning and can even encourage underachievement.  Addressing behavior issues associated with insufficient challenge takes a “two-pronged” approach. Hold your child accountable for behavior, but don’t stop there; teach your child how to advocate for challenge in a positive way. Does your child have a story to write or a topic of interest that she could to explore if class work is finished early? Are there meaningful ways to improve his or her work? If possible, consider a follow up meeting with your child and the teacher to discuss ways to access more challenge in the classroom, as well as to “start over” and make positive behavior choices.
  • Ask what resources/opportunities are available for differentiation in the classroom for high ability students: Schools have different approaches to meeting the needs of high ability students. Ask about what kinds of opportunities are available in the classroom and are/may be used to meet your child’s needs for challenge.
  • Investigate Opportunities for Acceleration: If insufficient challenge is an ongoing issue for your child, the teacher or the principal may be able to provide information about other academic options, such as acceleration.* Are there opportunities for grade-level and/or content acceleration at your school? Is this an appropriate option for your child?

*For a recent study on the benefits of acceleration, see:

Assouline, Susan G., Susan G. Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, and Miraca U. M. Gross. A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students. IA City, IA: Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, U of Iowa, 2015. Print.

Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, The University of Iowa

Challenging or Pushing? Finding the Right Balance

IMG_1963How much challenge is part of a healthy, “balanced diet” for learning?

Children are capable of wonderful things; we should never underestimate what they can achieve. Moreover, children need academic challenges in elementary school to prepare them for the future, and they need to develop dispositions, such as perseverance and resilience that lead to success in school and in life.

Yet, when parents encourage their elementary and middle-school children to take on academic challenges such as enrichment and accelerated classes, a question that can sometimes arise is: “Am I pushing my child too much in school?”

The answer is an individual one. The following questions may help parents when considering whether they are “pushing too hard” about school work:

  • Is my child healthy — physically/emotionally (sleep, diet, exercise, happy, energy level)?
  • Is my child excited and enthusiastic about schoolwork and learning?
  • Does my child have time to pursue interests and friendships that are positive?
  • Is the “homework load” generally manageable for my child (not a “flashpoint” for arguments or a consistent cause of stress)?

If the answers to any of the above questions are “no,” (in addition to addressing any health concerns with your child’s doctor), it may be time to ask your child’s teacher about possible options to support your child in school and/or to re-evaluate his or her academic placement.

Achieving the “perfect” balance of challenge and fun every day during the school year is an elusive goal.  Yet, parents can do a great deal to help their children keep healthy attitudes about academic challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Celebrate/validate incremental success and all kinds of achievement.
  • Talk to your child; keep tabs on his or her feelings.
  • Be self aware when modeling learning/responsibility/failure.
  • Think in terms of making choices that support your child’s individual personal and academic needs rather than “pushing.”
  • Play your “own game.” Do what’s right for your child – not someone else’s!
  • Reevaluate extracurricular commitments and priorities. What are your child’s interests? Does your child have sufficient time to pursue these interests?

As we fill our children’s lives with delicious, meaningful challenges, we need to continue to nourish our children by showing that we love them for who they are—not what they achieve.