Category Archives: Reader Questions

Practicing the Foundational Skills

**This week I’m attempting to answer a reader’s questions.  You can find the entire series here.  Next week will be back to business as usual.**

Yesterday, I mentioned some foundational skills that really help learning activities work well in our home.  These were obedience, listening skills and comprehension, attention span, and self-control.  There are many ways to help little ones practice these skills, this list is just a few ways we put them into practice.  By NO means are these the ONLY way to teach these concepts.  The point is giving them opportunities to practice the foundational skills on a consistent basis.  Feel free to share other ideas! 

Focused Play – As an early crawler, I gave him a toy and we play with that toy for a certain amount of time (a couple of minutes at first).  If he starts to wander off to play towards something else, I tell him we are playing xyz now and point out a new aspect of the toy, basically try to get him to notice something about it that he hadn’t yet noticed.  We started SMALL, just a couple minutes.  After awhile, he could play on his own with a toy for longer and longer.  His attention span was increasing.  He was learning how to explore and even investigate a toy.  This really helped when we began table time later (see below).  This was a long process.  ALL crawlers and early walkers like to wander.  The exploring they naturally do is great and offers lots of developmental opportunities too.  There’s plenty of time in the day for both exploration AND for focused play too.  My perspective is, being the adult, I have something to offer J…. including in play.  In my opinion this is actually an early learning activity in and of itself.  It’s not abc’s but it’s something that will later help them learn those things. Focusing for extended periods of time is something they learn.  I believe we can help them learn it little by little. 

Blanket Time -  Basically you give a visible boundary and teach them to stay within it.  We started this around 10 months, using a blanket.  There were no crib rails or seatbelt restraining him; he had to learn to control his own desires and stay within the boundary simply because mom said so.  We started with 5 minutes, twice a day and worked up to 30 minutes once a day.  We also started with me playing with him and worked towards him playing alone.  It was not easy but I saw HUGE benefits once he learned.  By 12 months I could do this out of the house with confidence that he would control himself and obey happily for the entire 30 minutes.  He even asked for blanket time both at home and while we were out.  This one “activity” helped J practice all of the foundational skills.  He had to LISTEN to mom’s instructions, practice SELF-CONTROL in order to OBEY those instructions, and he it really really helped to lengthen his attention span (since he had to play with the toys provided on the blanket rather than roaming from one toy to the next every 5 seconds). 

Reading   this is a proven way to encourage listening skills, comprehension, and attention span.  It’s also a very easy thing to do and it’s fun! Sit them in your lap, on the couch, on a blanket and read.  Ask questions as you read to keep them involved and encourage listening skills.  Have them stay in one place to practice self-control.  After awhile, you’ll notice they are able to pay attention for longer and longer reading sessions.  They will also be able to comprehend more intricate storylines pretty quickly.  You could also practice this by playing books on tape or just record yourself (and other family members) telling stories.  Listen to them in the car or while preparing dinner.  They don’t need to have a book in front of them while listening, they can work out that imagination too. 

Conversations - Talking WITH J, as opposed to talking around him, about him or to him really makes a difference.  Waiting for a response from them, makes them aware of how a conversation works.  It gives them an incentive to listen which in turns helps them practice listening.  Of course the 3 months old won’t answer your questions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start modeling the process that early.  The 10 month old might be able to sign a simple response, the 18 month old might be able to give a one word answer and the 3 year old might go on and on and on and on and on.  

One time I accidentally dialed a friend’s number on my cell while I was taking J on a walk around the neighborhood.  The phone was in the stroller pocket and I had no clue my friend was on the line.  She remarked later, “I heard you talking to J saying, ‘Here’s the end the street.  To be safe, let’s stop here and make sure there aren’t any cars coming before we cross.  Do you see any cars J?… Oh you’re right, I see that blue car coming too.”  She found it funny that I was attempting to hold a conversation with my 10 month old.  Of course he didn’t respond to me that day, but he was growing more and more aware of his surroundings, learning to listen, learning that a response during the pause was anticipated, even learning to always stop and look for cars before crossing the street.  The only way they learn to listen is if we give them practice at it AND incentives to listen.  Why should they listen to us if we aren’t ever giving them the opportunity to respond?

Table Time – We started table time with just a few minutes a couple times per day in the highchair.  I used very simple activities that capitalized on his interests at the time (mostly the in and out game) and we slowly worked to increase the amount of time he could handle in one sitting.  We worked up from needing 3 or 4 different activities each time to just one.  My goal in this was extending his attention span, working on obedience and on self-control (keeping toys on the table).  I was not focused on teaching academics at all in the beginning because I didn’t want to expect too much.  A side benefit was great practice with motor skills. 

Piece by piece instructions – This really helped J practice listening skills and obedience.  Instead of calling his name and telling him what I wanted him to do all at once, learning to split up the instructions into the smallest parts made a huge difference.   “J, come in here and pick up your toys,” sounded more like:

“J “ (wait for response…in our house that meant he needed to look at me and when he was able to crawl/walk, move to where I was)

“Pick up your truck.” (wait for him to finish)

“Put your truck in this box.” (wait for him to finish)

If there was a problem with him following through, I could easily pick out which part of the instruction caused it.  This helped me determine if he simply didn’t understand the instruction, didn’t hear my instruction, or was testing mommy to see what happens if he doesn’t obey!  We could then focus working on the very specific problem.  Once I knew he understood, I tried really hard not to repeat anything.  This helped improve his listening skills since he had to listen the first time.  It also improved obedience since he knew he had to obey the first time.  As he got better, I could group more instructions together.   

To be completely honest, this one was hardest for me.  It just wasn’t natural for me to go SO SLOW in instructions.  It still isn’t, though it is easier.  I kept forgetting to stop and wait after I called his name.  That one took awhile to become habit (or closer to a habit).  To this day, if J is having a rough week with obedience, I look at how many instructions I’m giving him at once.  I pull back on that and he starts improving so much.  It’s a way to keep us both consistent I think, which leads me to…

Consistency –Consistency in my expectations and in my response is absolutely key.   It is also a pain in the neck.  I don’t always WANT to be consistent to be quite honest.  Many times I want to just take a break from being mom.  When I do, I kick myself later while having to correct the bad habits that J learned during my siesta.   The older they get and the better their foundational skills are, the more we can take a mini-break without making major steps back (judging from both motherhood and teaching).  But my almost 3 year old still thrives best under consistency.

Practice, Practice, Practice – 3 minutes will eventually turn into 10 minutes, 30 minutes or 1 hour; ignoring will turn to hearing, listening and responding and (the most rewarding part) LEARNING from us.  We just have to keep at it!

What have you done to help practice foundational skills like obedience, self-control, attention span, and listening and comprehension skills?  I would love to hear ideas! 

What other foundational skills do you think are important?

To see the other posts in this series, click here.

Foundational Skills that Help Learning Activities Succeed

Hopefully this week’s posts are helping some out there!  Next week will be back to normal, but I thought this was worth the break from the norm.  Here’s the question for today:

I’ve tried to do some crafts with my daughter and it just doesn’t go well. She has a hard time following my directions and accomplishing the craft. Are my expectations too high for her age and when will I start to see some improvement on her attention span?  (comments from reader)

First off, I won’t be able to judge whether expectations are too high because there are too many unknowns from my perspective.  I’m living and working with my son everyday and can still manage to misjudge my own expectations for him!  I try to learn from it and move on.

Think about all the skills your little one needs in order to do well with the activities you’re attempting. Don’t forget that this includes more than ability to color or glue.  Table activities can test their fine motor skills, listening skills, ability to follow directions (and willingness to), ability to sit still, attention span and focus, etc.  That’s a lot of skills to suddenly expect from a toddler or to push them to excel in through a 15 or 20 minute activity. They will most likely not find the activity enjoyable if we push them too far too fast.  All of us are more likely to get frustrated (and act out inappropriately) when trying to do something too far above our abilities.  Hand me a violin and expect Bach in 20 minutes and I’m gonna lose it… my teacher would likely lose it too!  (btw, does Bach even compose violin pieces?)

 I personally did not attempt crafts with J at first. It would have been too much for us both to handle.  As a teacher, I focused the first weeks of the year establishing rules, authority, respect, and classroom procedures so that the entire class knew what to expect from Mrs. T.  Establishing these things really helped make sure the rest of the year was spent on efficient learning… and once that respect was truly gained, my job was MUCH easier.   The year was more enjoyable for my students tooSince I wasn’t fighting to get them to listen and obey we could have fun with the lesson or activity. I took a similar route with J.

I think there are certain foundational skills that our little ones need in order to gain full value from any learning activity (and eventually at school).  To be completely honest, I see the foundational skills as essential to make each part of the day run smoothly.  Self-control, obedience, prolonged attention span, listening and comprehension skills are a few essentials.  As a junior high teacher, these skills were still a huge determining factor in a student’s success in school.  And a toddler can definitely begin to learn each of them. 

Of course these are things we will constantly build upon as J grows.  We started working on them very early, long before I sat him down to do a formal learning activity.  Today at almost 3 years old, we are still practicing them.  There’s no crossing it off as completed, just further development of each.  

If you think your little one first needs more success with foundational skills, you can structure acitivities that will help them practice. Make that your starting point. If the foundations are already being consistently practiced, start working in the new skills.  They don’t need mastery of the foundational skills before you can start learning activities.  I’m an adult and I haven’t mastered those skills!  

It will be a slow process.  Expect that.  We’re putting the foundational skills into practice WHILE we’re teaching abc’s.  Start with a small amount of time and build up over time instead of fighting through a full 30 minutes at first.  And build up a storehouse of patience for your sanity (and your child’s!).  You will see improvement over time. 

Please share your own thoughts!  What other skills would you consider a foundation for success?

(To see the other posts in this series, click here.)

Getting Started: Choosing an Activity

This week I’m doing my best to answer some questions presented by a reader, to see the other posts in the series click here. Please feel free to share your own thoughts and advice!

Today we’re on part two of Getting Started: Choosing an Activity

Did you have specific expectations or goals for your son at this age or was it just a slow process of working on things and small concepts; more of a parent directed play?  (questions from a reader)

Yes to all of the above.

I do have a list of specific goals that I want to teach J through our day’s activities.  The list helps me plan our days rather than survive them and helps me evaluate if I’m spending my time wisely on what J needs (living up to my overall purpose as mentioned yesterday).  I am not a legalist about my list and I certainly don’t look at the list every day or even every week.  There have even been months that go by when I don’t open up my list (like during my first trimester!).  It is always nice though to have something to go back to that helps me reevaluate or even get back on track.  

My list is not a set of standards that MUST be achieved by a certain age.  There are actually no age expectations on my list at all.  It is also not focused mainly on academics (though they are included), because that is not my main purpose. Your list will reflect your overall purpose for these activties like I mentioned yesterday.   

Why no age expectations?  I honestly do not know everything a 34 month old should be able to do.  That’s ok with me.  If there’s a serious red flag I would look into it, but J mastering the skill of jumping a little behind the norm is not really a big deal to me.  We added some more gross motor play for practice and waited for him to get it down.  He did and now jumps everywhere.

I also do not know everything a 34 month old should NOT be able to do (per the experts).  I think this gives me freedom to think outside the box and to keep from underestimating J.  I don’t end up limiting him to what is “normal”.  I do my best to present new activities based on whether he is physically, mentally, or socially ready for them.    I learned to watch his individual signs that tells me something is too easy or too difficult for him.  The point is, I am determining the next step to take based on J’s current developmental  stage.  I assess that and take one small step forward. Trial and error tells me if that step forward was small enough.

To create my list of goals:

  1.  I first came up with categories (just to name a few: moral, academic, Biblical, safety, …).
  2. I then listed specifics that are important for J to learn in each category (ex: Moral – speak kindly; Academic – letter recognition). 
  3. I can then make sure our play, conversations, learning activities, discipline, etc. are working towards those goals. 

As I feel that J is mastering a certain item on the list, I move on (though we review A LOT).  But there’s really not a lot on my list that can simply be checked off as accomplished.  That might be possible for knowing letters or colors, but those are honestly the least important goals for J right now.  Most of the goals are continually practiced as he grows. 

Which activities do I choose?

Depending on your list, it is very likely that your goals will not all be covered by formal learning activities.  I choose activities that will help J practice a particular goal in as many ways possible. They are learning all throughout the day and paying very close attention to our interactions with them.  This makes play, discipline, conversations, stories, song,s and modeling a good example all equally important (if not more important) to formal, sit-at-your-desk learning.  So I try to think of many ways to get the message across and help J practice.

Example:  One of my categories is “Family”.  An expectation under this category is “Help each other (and eventually offer to help when you see a need)”.  I wanted to instill this concept and be purposeful about it. Activities that we do to put this into practice would include reading books, learning Bible verses, role playing, and singing songs.  My husband and I try to be present good examples and for the sake of our toddler, be obvious about it.  So he might make a point to say, “Mom, it looks like you’re tired.  I can do the dishes tonight.  That would be a great way to help you.” And we let J practice by clearing the table or emptying the dishwasher.  And yes, we require it.  I consider brushing his teeth important enough to require that and in my opinion, instilling a helpful attitude is just as important. 

Other examples are much more concrete (like teaching the letter A or the color green).  Even with the academic lessons, I try to find many ways to introduce and practice the concept.  Most of the “activities” we do are simply examples of parent-directed play rather than sit-at-your-desk activities.  When he was younger, ALL the activities were some form of parent-directed play. 

Still, determining which activity will be best for him can mean some trial and error.  But then trial and error has honestly been a big part of parenting since we brought J home from the hospital!   If an activity or conversation doesn’t go well, I evaluate why.  It may be because I chose the wrong time of day (close to nap or mealtime), maybe I’ve been lax in discipline lately so simple obedience was really the issue, maybe I expected too much from him and need to try something a bit more basic, maybe it was too easy and therefore boring for him, or maybe I didn’t present the activity well enough and need to find a better way to teach him. There could be many reasons something didn’t go well. 

Don’t give up.  There have been times simply placing an activity or concept on hold for another month was all that was needed.  There have also been times my husband came home from work to try an activity with J that bombed just hours earlier with me… and has great success.  My husband just found a better way to help J with it.  That’s a little frustrating!  It’s also perfectly understandable and just one more reason I’m grateful for my husband!

So far he’s still thriving despite the errors, so we must be doing something right.

You can also check out this guest post I wrote, called Value Learning.  It explains why I do what I do and helps with getting started.

To see the other posts in this series, click here.

Getting Started: What’s your purpose?

This week I’m doing my best to answer some questions presented by a reader (see original post here).  Please feel free to share your own experiences; I can only give my perspective. We are all learning!

Today we’re on to: What’s your purpose?

Did you have specific expectations or goals for your son at this age or was it just a slow process of working on things and small concepts; more of a parent directed play?  (questions from a reader)

Yes to all of the above.

I think the first question that should be answered is…Why are you  interested in structuring activities for your little one?  What are you looking to accomplish? Everyone’s purpose is going to be different.

My personal answer would be to help me remain purposeful in my parenting.  I’ll be upfront and say that purposeful parenting does not come easy (or natural) for me.  I tend to me more geared towards parenting-on-a-whim.  But I completely recognize that when I do that, J is not getting my best efforts.  His development and learning is full of frustrations and setbacks.  When I’m only mindful of the here-an-now, I’m doing whatever is easiest for that moment and not what is really going to help J in the long run.  If there’s a problem, I’m really just whitewashing to make the surface appear better instead of focusing on the underlying issue at hand.  It’s important enough for me to attempt purposeful parenting, so I try to come up with ways to get the job done. This is why I do structured activities.  They help me parent better and therefore help J too. 

I believe my role as a parent is to help J learn to eventually handle life on his own.  That’s not going to happen if I’m not focused. I want him prepared for what lies ahead.  For now it’s preparation for playdates, Sunday school classrooms, family life, and basic safety but that eventually changes to school, peer pressure, work and eventually a wife and family of his own.  Each setting requires skills that I can help him learn so his frustrations during the transitions are minimal.  I see it as my job to help provide the foundations he’ll need to handle each part of life.  My toddler’s needs, for now, are sharing, listening to teachers, and going to the potty without mom dragging him! So we start simple (though honestly, those aren’t such simple things to teach a toddler!!).

I read a quote once that I love: “…our children are not going to always be just ‘our children’ but other people’s husbands and wives and, eventually, someone’s father or mother or teacher or pastor or lunar module mechanic.  We reap what we sow.” (Where Roots Grow Deep by Bob Welch).

J doesn’t have to learn it all now.  He’s just 2 years old.  It will be a SLOW process where he gains more and more over time until he’s ready to live on his own.  But if I’m not spending my days providing the right directions and help he needs now, he’s essentially on his own already.  I’m leaving him to walk into that Sunday school room completely unaware and unprepared.  He now has to learn how to keep content away from his comfort zone (and comfort people, like mom/dad), communicate to other adults, follow instructions, and play well with others on his own.  He can learn that way, but there will be a lot more bumps in the road if I leave a 2 year old to figure it all out solo.

How many times have I become frustrated with J because of something, taken a step back later and realized I had expected him to just know something without having ever taught it?  I had left him on his own to learn and when he didn’t show proficiency in it (surprise, surprise), I got frustrated and he got punished.  If I’m not sowing, he’s not reaping (or he’s reaping very ineffectively which is not ideal). How can I expect to reap benefits in the future? Even more so, how can I expect J to reap benefits in his future and handle life well? But if I am sowing and teaching him what he needs to know, he enters each life situation better prepared to succeed.

This overall purpose is not something I think about day in and day out.  Just like everyone else I get easily absorbed in bills, cleaning, work, meals, and life.  Like I said, I am naturally prone to random, get-through-the-day parenting.  I need organzation to help me fulfill my goal.  Structured activities help me keep focused.  A focused mom, purposeful in her parenting will be a huge benefit to J. 

This means that the type of structured activities we do on a daily basis should bring me back to my overall purpose.  If they aren’t, I need to reevaluate and make some changes.  It’s a good way to occasionally check myself. 

So what’s your purpose for doing structured activities with your little one? I think it’s worth the time to think of one all-encompassing purpose, not a list of detailed goals yet.  You might not need the help focusing like I do.  Maybe you are wanting to prepare your little one for kindergarten?  Maybe you’re officially homeschooling your little one? Maybe you are wanting to help your days run more smoothly?  Maybe you want fun one-on-one time with your little one?  Something else?

Your answer is going to determine the next step so it’s an important question to consider. 

To see the other posts in this series, click here.

Comparing: Does my little one match up?

This week, I’m attempting to answer some questions presented by a reader.  First up … making comparisons.   

I am having a hard time looking at the educational blogs for children and thinking that my daughter should have these skills down. I see some of the things you’ve tried with your son at my daughter’s age and it just seems like she is so far from having enough attention span or ability to follow directions that I often get frustrated. (comments from reader)

I think ALL parents have these comments go through their head at some point.  I have. It is so hard not to compare, both in real life and in the virtual!  It really doesn’t do our kids justice though.  They are truly each their own.  I’ve had to learn…. and practice because it doesn’t come naturally for me…  to search the plethora of ideas solely for that purpose, for ideas and for inspiration.  If they are discouraging more than encouraging, I have to turn the computer off.  Honestly.  I will even say the same for all of my readers, turn my blog off if it isn’t encouraging for you.  That’s not the purpose at all.  I will say I have gotten better at remaining detached, learning to read the blogs as I would an activity book from the bookstore.  This helps me get the inspiration I need without getting worried because my son doesn’t necessarily match up with someone else’s child. 

The age groups on this blog are there just as a guideline, hopefully to make the searching process easier for parents. They are not absolutes by any means.  They are based on my experiences with one child.  I’m sure my next child will require me to move at a different pace.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There are things J could do at ages when his friends weren’t quite able to accomplish them yet.  There are also things J could NOT do at ages while all his peers could.  The point is, don’t get stuck on age!  Focus on your child’s current needs.  When searching this blog, I suggest looking at activities in your little one’s age group, as well as both the previous age group and the next to come.  So if you have a 20 month old child, I would look at pretoddler, early toddler and toddler activities (check out the favorites page for some highlights, or use the age categories in the sidebar). You will likely find activities from each category that would work for your 20 month old.  But, keep in mind that there will be activities that just won’t fit your little one’s needs.  Don’t feel pressured to try them all. 

We as parents are learning too.  That’s part of the process. Let’s face it, frustration is part of parenting and it starts from day one.  Frustration doesn’t mean we give up.  It might be we need to reevaluate what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.  We find a good fix and keep consistent.  Any good teacher will tell you the same.  Give yourself the time to learn too.  Sometimes that means allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Don’t expect perfection.  Afterall we’re working with toddlers! 

Typing up a quick review to post of an activity that I did with J doesn’t tell you everything that occurred during it. 

  • I don’t mention the 2 potty trips and 1 accident that occurred during the igloo activity, leading to a very frustrated mom (I probably should’ve waited another day to let potty training sink in a bit more!). 
  • You don’t read all the details about how J (typically VERY cautious with new textures and experiences) was hesitant to dive into the snowbox at first.  Our first attempt was mildly enjoyable and I had to stay there playing with him the entire time even for that.  The 2nd and 3rd attempts were huge improvements and eventually he loved it and would ask for me to bring it out again and again.  
  • When we first started with activities like plastic eggs in egg carton or sorting beads into trays, we had our fair share of dropping them onto the floor instead.  It was apparently so much fun to watch them fall! Or how he was one day adamant that the red bead should go in the same pile as the green when sorting. An individual activity might last all of 5 minutes tops.  But 5 minutes developed into 10 and then 20 minutes.  He also learned that just like dropping food from the highchair wasn’t allowed, neither was dropping toys (crayons, paintbrushes, paint!). 
  • Did I forget to mention that J decided that one of our letters of the day made the sound “poopoo” and refused to be told otherwise?

These are just a few examples.  Every activity blog, every classroom, and every homeschool kitchen table has similar stories of the learning process in action. 

If an activity or conversation doesn’t go well, I evaluate why.  It may be because I chose the wrong time of day (close to nap or mealtime), maybe I’ve been lax in discipline lately so simple obedience was really the issue, maybe I expected too much from him and need to try something a bit more basic, maybe it was too easy and therefore boring for him, or maybe I didn’t present the activity well enough and need to find a better way to teach him. There could be many reasons something didn’t go well. 

Don’t give up.  There have been times simply placing an activity or concept on hold for another month was all that was needed.  There have also been times my husband came home from work to try an activity with J that bombed just hours earlier with me… and has great success.  My husband just found a better way to help J with it.  That’s a little frustrating!  It’s also perfectly understandable and just one more reason I’m grateful for my husband!

Letting frustrations keep up from trying again would mean we miss out on the growth that we get to see over time and we’ll miss out on all the “‘fun” along the way. 

Go have some fun!

(To see links to the other posts in this series, click here)

How do we make learning activities work?

I am having a hard time looking at the educational blogs for children and thinking that my daughter should have these skills down. I see some of the things you’ve tried with your son at my daughter’s age and it just seems like she is so far from having enough attention span or ability to follow directions that I often get frustrated. Did you have specific expectations or goals for your son at this age or was it just a slow process of working on things and small concepts; more of a parent directed play? I’ve tried to do some crafts with my daughter and it just doesn’t go well. She has a hard time following my directions and accomplishing the craft. Are my expectations too high for her age and when will I start to see some improvement on her attention span?

One of my readers asked these questions and thankfully agreed to let me use them to kick-start some posts this week (thanks April!).  I think they are great comments and extremely common among parents.  Since there are so many points in her comment, I’m going to split them up into separate posts (links below) so we just tackle one issue at a time. I’ll do my best to answer each question and would love to hear other readers suggestions and perspectives too.  I know there are lots of parents out there with great tips!

We’ll start tomorrow!
___________________________________________________

Comparing – Does my little one match up?
Getting Started (part 1) – What’s your purpose?
Getting Started (part 2) – Choosing an Activity
Foundational Skills (part 1)- How can I make the activities run smoothly?
Foundational Skills (part 2) –Ways to help them practice, practice, practice!