6 January 2014 08:00 AM

A Half Dozen New Year's Resolutions for School Success

by rbavaria

Happy New Year!  Here it is the beginning of the new year, and we’re all busily making our New Year’s Resolutions, which we all know from experience will last – maybe – until the middle of January.  We’re well-intentioned but not always good on perseverance. 

Since our kids follow our behavior better than they do our advice, it may be a good time to reflect on what New Year’s Resolutions we’re going to be making this year. 

I have an idea.  How about making a resolution, along with your kids, that can help them achieve in the classroom and beyond? 

Remember the goals you made at the beginning of the school year in September? The ones that narrowly focused on a couple of subjects, behaviors, habits, or attitudes?  I’ll bet the recent holidays managed to pry your attention away from them, right?  Now might be a good time for you and your kids to re-focus, as school starts again.

That’s the good thing about school – you get two new years!

We parents and teachers know well that the best way to ensure our kids are doing what we want them to do is to check up on them.  And the best way to check up is regularly but randomly.  You learned that in Psych 101, remember?  Random checks, rewards, and consequences go a long way to changing behaviors.

So, here, in the spirit of the New Year, and in the hope of re-kindling those school goals, are a half-dozen suggestions of things you can randomly check up on.  Feel free to substitute ideas that work with your family.  Let your kids know you’re going to be taking an enhanced interest in their schooling.  They’re gripe a little, maybe even roll their eyes (“Yeah, we’ve heard this before”), but make it your sole New Year’s Resolution and they’ll soon see you’re serious.

Check on their . . .

1.      Homework and study areas.  They can’t find their supplies, notebooks, texts, or other study materials if they’re constantly disorganized or their study areas are FEMA sites.  Drop in periodically, unannounced, to have a check. 

2.      Projects.  You’ve read it here before.  Break up scary big projects into easy, smaller ones.  This requires staying to a schedule.  Waiting until the day before the Science Fair to begin a project is a recipe for embarrassment, frustration, and family drama.

3.      Behavior. How’s behavior in class?  In the halls?  At lunchtime in the cafeteria?  At recess?  On the athletic fields?  Talk about your expectations, and if you feel a reach-out to Ms. Stickler is appropriate, do it.  Communicating with teachers is easier than ever with emails, texts, and school websites complete with private teacher pages.

4.      Studying for tests.  Everyone knows when the “big” tests are given.  The end-of-unit tests, the semester tests, the state tests, and the Friday vocabulary and spelling quizzes.  If teachers can give surprise pop quizzes, so can you, especially when you hear, “But I don’t have any homework tonight!”  Spring a pop spelling or math facts quiz.  They’ll keep on their toes.

5.      Grades.  “Tell me about English class.  What’s likely to be your report card grade in a few weeks?” is a good –and timely – conversation starter.  Kids know what their grades are.  Engage them, listen, vow to help.

6.      Notebooks, computers, and planners.  You can tell a lot about kids’ study habits by looking at their personal school materials.  Usefully neat?  In some kind of order?  Easily used?  Or a disaster zone?  As a teacher, I’m able to do a pretty good diagnosis of kids’ learning by a quick look at their notebooks.  (Backpacks are an even better tell-all.)  Help them learn how to organize.


Every family has its own needs, of course, but take it from this veteran teacher – random checks, honest and helpful, not punitive or “gotcha,” can help kids of all ages know you’re interested in their success and willing to take an active role.  Persist.  You’ll be glad you did.  Eventually, they will, too.  

23 December 2013 07:26 AM

Take Your Time!

by rbavaria

My dad, a military man we used to call The Major, dispensed advice readily.  How to take responsibility for yourself.  (“Excuses only satisfy the man who makes them.”)  How to neaten up after yourself.  (“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”)  How to learn from your mistakes, as long as you don’t keep making the same ones.  (“Even a jackass doesn’t step in the same hole twice.”)  And the importance of taking your time when you’re working on something worthwhile.  (“Haste makes waste.”)


That last one is particularly important for students as they do their schoolwork.  I’ve been teaching a long, long time, and the stories I could tell of kids – smart kids – who screw up an assignment, a test, or a project simply because they rushed through it. 

“Oh, I didn’t see that instruction!”

“We were supposed to answer the odd numbered problems?”

“How could I misspell so many simple words?”

Take your time,  I tell kids that every day.  Why’s everyone in such a rush? 


Here are some thoughts.

1. Take time to think.  Kids are impatient, that’s a fact.  They speed through everything.  It’s up to us adults, their parents and teachers, to help them see the importance of thinking before acting.  A few minutes’ thought can save several hours of make-up work.

2. Take time to do your work.  I may sound like The Major, but haste really does make waste.  Oh, the mistakes we make when we’re in a run and a fall-down!

3. Take time to proofread and check.  Training them to go over their work before they consider it done (let alone turning it in) is a gift they’ll use forever.  They’ll find all sorts of silly mistakes in arithmetic, spelling, or basic facts. 

4. Take time to develop the habit.  Help them get in the habit of taking their time on activities that require thought and consideration.  Give them a specific homework time duration.  A good rule of thumb is ten minutes per grade – first grade, ten minutes; fifth grade, fifty.  Make sure they’re busily engaged during the whole time.  Check on the results.  If they insist they’re finished early, give them a few extra spelling words or a few more double-digit multiplication problems.  You’re the boss.


Enlist the help of study buddy friends.  I’m a big fan of kids having study buddies.  When they study with friends, they engage in friendly rivalry, mutual encouragement, and celebration when they’re successful.  For major assignments, I require pairs of students to check on each other’s work.  If I find a dumb error when I’m grading papers, each one loses points.  This keeps them alert, and it greatly minimizes my homework time!  So, there.


We tell them to spend the time to be successful on the sports fields and with their hobbies.  We can also convince them to take the time necessary for academic success.  When they see those improved report cards, they’ll make the connection between time and good grades.

16 December 2013 07:14 AM

Pretty Good Rules for Kids

by rbavaria

It doesn’t matter what they say, kids really, really like rules.  Yes, they complain at times and even pitch the occasional fit, but rules provide structure and limits, which kids crave – even if they don’t realize it.  Rules develop eventual independence.  Rules help kids figure out their own boundaries.

Watch what happens when some child ignores a rule in class.  “Ms. Smith, Cherie’s butting in line!”  “Mr. Luden, Jarrett’s using the pencil sharpener without asking first!”  “Cafeteria Lady, Troy’s trying to get two cookies!”

Even older kids rely on rules.  Parents’ and teachers’ rules can help strengthen kids’ resolve without their losing face.  “I really want to go to that party at Jan’s house while her parents are away, but my folks won’t let me.  Darn!”

I have rules in my high school classroom – they usually revolve around respect, responsibility, keeping the peace, and learning.  I ask kids about the rules their parents have at home, and it’s no surprise that the clearer and more consistently applied their families’ rules, the better the kids tend to do in school.  

Rules rule.

When kids abide by rules, it’s easy for parents and teachers to loosen up a little.  When kids don’t abide by rules, the rules become tighter.  That’s fair.  Kids know fair when they see it.

Here are some pretty good rules that have worked for me and my kids over the years.  Feel free to adapt and use in your own families and classrooms.

  1. Help out around the house. A household is complicated, with lots of people’s needs and expectations to account for.  Help keep it smoothly running by being responsible for a few chores and obligations.
  2. Help your brother and sister.  Siblings learn from each other all the time.  We adults might as well channel that natural dynamic by insisting they’re helpful to each other in school, at home, and at play.
  3. Homework first, then TV.  This one’s a no-brainer.  Periodically, randomly (that’s the best), check up on their work.  To establish your parental bona fides, make some sort of helpful comment, even if it’s a stretch about making it neater.  Then TV.
  4. Keep your room and study area organized.  Organization is the key to successful studying.   It’s true in school.  It’s true in the workplace.  Save kids’ time and energy (“I can’t find my highlighters again!”) by expecting a reasonably neat room and desk.
  5. Choose your friends carefully.  This can be tough, especially as kids get older and seek more independence.  But one of adults’ most sacred duties is to keep kids as safe as possible.  If you suspect some friends are troublemakers, find the right time to have a chat, and either your kid will put your mind put at ease or you’ll set some limits.
  6. Family routines are important.  Dinnertime, bedtime, study time, play time, worship time, family time – these and other routines form the basis of kids’ lives and help establish lifelong values.  Expect kids to abide by your family’s routines.
  7. Be polite, courteous, and respectful.  My grandmother used to say, “No matter who you are or where you are, when you’re rude, you’re wrong.”  I tell my kids it doesn’t matter whether you like the person you’re dealing with, just be nice.  Life will be so much easier.
  8. Do your best.  At home, at school, at play, do your best.  I can usually disarm potential arguments at homework time by asking simply, “Is this your best?”  There’s some eye-rolling, but eventually it gets done better.
  9. Be fair.  Kids can spot unfairness a mile away.  They expect everyone to be fair to them.  We must insist they’re fair to everyone, too.
  10. Learn from your mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  It’s one of the things that make us human.  Heroes make mistakes.  So do parents, teachers, and coaches.  The mistakes, even if they’re painful or embarrassing, can be valuable, though, if we learn from them.  Help kids through the tears and sense of loss, and then show them how to make the best of a bad situation.  It’s a good life lesson.  

Rules don’t have to be authoritarian and smothering.  Don’t forget the earned praise that motivates kids, and remember consequences can be equally effective.  Like everything else with kids, a little flexibility, some common sense, and a whole lot of humor will go a long way.




4 November 2013 08:46 AM

Cramming is a Lousy Way to Study

by rbavaria

What, are you nuts?  You have an exam tomorrow, and you’re just now getting around to studying?  Do you really think cramming the night before will help?  Think again, you poor fool.

Cramming is for short term memory not for learning.  It’s okay for errands to the grocery store (although a simple list could help), but it’s lousy for learning.  What you cram tonight will be gone by tomorrow night. 

Yes, there are plenty of websites that claim to teach you “how to cram for a test.”  (There are also plenty of websites that claim to know where Elvis is living incognito.)  Don’t pay any attention to them.  They’re baloney.

Instead, make a pact with yourself and a couple of study buddies who have each other’s backs.  Your study buddies should be classmates who have the same goals, who refuse to be distracted, who have an eye to the future, and who support and encourage each other.  Together, decide that you’re not going to make the same mistakes you made in the past.  (A friend of mine with a colorful way of putting things says, “Even a jackass doesn’t step in the same hole twice!”)  Then, don’t let anyone get you off track.

Instead of cramming, try these suggestions.  They’re common sense, and besides, you know they’re right.

  1. Go to class every day. Being in class is half the battle.  How can you learn if you’re not there to hear what your teacher has to say?  What your classmates have to say?  What the discussion is about?  What varying points of view exist?
  2. Pay attention.  If being in class is half the battle, paying attention is the other half.  Listen to what others are saying.  Engage your god-given brain.  Think.
  3. Take good notes.  No one can remember everything, so good note-taking is essential not only in class but in later life, too.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s pen-and-paper or electronic.  I tell my students to compare notes after class to make sure they haven’t missed anything.  (Really good teachers will guide you, too.  “This is important, so make sure you know this.”)
  4. Do the assignments.  Teachers give assignments and homework to ensure you’re getting practice on your skills, to reinforce what they just taught in class, or to prepare you for the next lesson.  Take them seriously.  Do the assignments.  On time.  Neatly.
  5. Participate.  When you’re participating in class, you’re learning actively.  Active is better than passive.  That’s why students who are engaged in class usually do better on tests.  Don’t bother yourself with what the losers think.
  6. Ask questions.  When you don’t understand something, when something confuses you, or when you need some clarification, ask about it.  Good teachers know they may not know the answer to everything, but they’ll get a good class discussion going and motivate you to find answers and share with the class tomorrow.  Everyone learns.
  7. Study together.  Make it routine to study regularly with your study buddies.  That way, exam time won’t seem overwhelming.  You’ve already been studying for a month!  Let others cram.
  8. Anticipate what will be on the test.  Being predictive is a great skill.  Remember what your teacher has stressed in class, what your textbook highlighted, what skills were featured in lectures, demonstrations, and group work.  These will be on the test.
  9. Read the test questions carefully.  I have a gazillion stories of students who carelessly read the questions and then, for instance, answered the odd numbered ones when they should have done the even ones.  Follow directions.
  10. Relax.  Easier said than done, I know, but it really is easier when you’ve seriously prepared and not foolishly crammed.


These suggestions work just as well for standardized tests, incidentally.  Like the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT.   Face it, anyone with half a brain can tell who’s crammed for a test and who really knows the material.  Crammers aren’t fooling anyone.  Learning’s for winners.  Cramming’s for losers.  Always has been.  Always will be.

14 March 2013 07:11 AM

Homework First, Then Games

by rbavaria

Is there a time of day that presents more brouhaha in American homes than homework time?  If there is, I’d like to know what it is.  Homework questions are among the most common here at the Dr. Rick Blog. 


“When’s the best time?”  “How involved should I be?”  “How do I enforce homework time?”  “How am I supposed to check subjects I’ve long forgotten?” 


You know.


And this one: “What about video games at homework time?”  That’s the easiest.  Here’s the answer: Homework first, then games. 


There’s nothing inherently wrong with video games and other time-passers.  In fact, they may even have some value – creativity, hand-eye-coordination, divergent thinking, socializing, and, of course, their compelling nature.


Yes, games are entertaining, but it’s not hard to argue that we’re the most entertained people in history while not necessarily the most informed.  That’s why homework comes first.


Here are some ideas on how to make sure homework comes first in your house.


  1. Let them know your values.  We show our values with every act we take, every comment we say, and every decision we make.  When we insist kids do their best in school, on keeping up with studies, doing well on tests, and, yes, getting their homework done, we’re showing our value of lifelong learning. 
  2. Be good role models.  It takes more than merely announcing, “Time for homework.”  You’ve heard me say it repeatedly: Kids do what we do more than they do what we say.  So, let them see you do “homework.”  When they’re hitting the books, you pay bills, spend some time on a project from work, or read.  Let them see we adults need to keep up, too.
  3. Provide routine.  Another favorite theme of mine.  Kids need their routines.  (So do adults, but we can discuss that some other time.)  Routines keep kids on track, let them know what’s next, and provide them with a sense of security, even safety.  Make sure homework time occurs at the same time each day for each kid.
  4. Provide structure.  Is there a regular, routine, place for homework?  Doesn’t have to be a private room.  In fact, some kids do better when they’re doing their homework within your sight.  But each kid should have a place to work, with supplies easily in reach (and put away afterward so they can be found without effort tomorrow).
  5. Provide opportunity.  When it’s time for homework, minimize distractions.  Homework time is the opportunity for kids to review what they learned yesterday, to practice what they learned today, and to prepare for what’s in store tomorrow.  Give them the opportunity to take advantage of homework time.
  6. Provide support.  Be around at homework time to show your interest.  Help when you can.  You don’t need to know everything.  When you’ve long forgotten the causes of the War of 1812 or how to do quadratic equations, you can always insist on neatness.  If it’s not neat enough for you, it won’t be for the teacher, either.
  7. Monitor.  Keep an eye on them as they do their homework.  Stick your head in the door from time to time.  When they’re done, a simple, “Hey, Sport, let me see that homework” can be helpful, especially if you check up regularly but randomly.   Keep them on their toes.
  8. Have specific times for games.  Schedule fun, too, just as you do with homework.  Learning shouldn’t be dreary.  Make time for video games and other compelling activities that kids like to spend their time with.  Some time for reading couldn’t hurt, either.
  9. Be there at game time.  You don’t have to be present every second, but it’s up to us parents and teachers to know what our kids are doing when they’re interacting with a screen of some sort.  That’s true in the classroom as much as at home.  Again, regular and random checks work best.  Ask the kids to “explain” a game, a website, or an app for you.  They feel smart, and you can see what they’re up to.
  10. Stay positive.  Nothing helps our kids more that we adults staying positive.  Constant scolding rarely lasts for long.  Neither do idle threats or raised voices.  Stick to your values, let your kids see how serious you are about their learning and homework, and stay firm but gentle.  A good sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.


If homework time is a battle in your house because the kids want to play video games instead of hitting the books, let them know you’re not opposed to the games – but you’re more interested in homework first.  They’ll get the message.



7 March 2013 12:32 PM

Write Down Those Assignments!

by rbavaria

Kids are inherently, genetically, and infuriatingly scatterbrained.  Any parent or teacher knows that.  They have the attention span of gnats.  They can’t help it.  Most of them grow out of it.  Eventually. 


“Clean up what mess?”


“I have to put the milk back in the refrigerator each time?”


What homework assignment?  What backpack?  What locker?”


“The permission slip is due today?  Permission slip for what?”


It can be enough to make you sign up enthusiastically for a cloistered, silent religious life.  Or, better yet, sign them up.  Who’d blame us?


But barring vows of silence, no matter how tempting, it’s up to us adults to keep our goofy kids on track as best we can.  It’s one of those paybacks our parents used to tell us about.  Now it’s our turn.


“I didn’t know it was due today!”


Every parent and teacher needs a little encouragement and maybe a little pity now and then.  I’ve dealt with forgetful and perpetually puzzled kids for decades – family and students.  I’ve figured out a few techniques, and I’ve learned a lot more from parents and faculty room colleagues.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned, a few habits to encourage in kids to make sure they slowly, painfully, learn to organize themselves.  And to write down their blasted assignments!


  1. Keep a family planner.  A family calendar posted in a conspicuous place is the best place to begin.  A big calendar, with plenty of space to write in assignments, play dates, book reports, tutoring sessions, music lessons, sports practices, and the like.  It’s healthy for us all to see – in writing – how busy our lives are.  Refer to the calendar daily.  Make reminders about upcoming deadlines.  Ask for progress reports.  Verify.  If your inner voice tells you you’re nagging, put a friendly lilt in your voice then nag anyway, nicely.
  2. Keep personal planners.  Okay, so the family has the big calendar on the refrigerator.  Now, everyone should have his or her own.  Paper or electronic, doesn’t matter.  Remember, they do what we do more than they do what we say, so show how you consult your planner often during the day.  “See, this isn’t something only kids do.”  Show how you rely on it to keep on track and to be reliable to others. 
  3. Make the planner routine.  Routines are important – you’ve read it here in the Dr. Rick Blog often and, well, routinely.  Kids respond to routines.  Routines let them know what comes next and what we expect of them.  Routines make them feel safe, ordered, and organized.  Encourage routines and stick to them.
  4. Check the planner.  Check everyone’s planner frequently.  Randomly is best.  “Let’s see that planner, Sport.  What’s the spelling list for this week?  When’s the test?  Show me on your planner when the social studies book report is due.  When is soccer practice?  What time?”  After a few random checks, he’ll get the picture.
  5. Stay positive.  Oh, the times you’ll be tempted to throw the half-used planner out the window!  Oh, the times you’ll be tempted to throw the half-pint kid out the window!  I strongly discourage each.  Keeping positive with charming but frustrating kids is one of adulthood’s greatest challenges.  Count to ten.  Take a deep breath.  Leave the room.  Think lovely thoughts.  Whatever works for you.  Then, gird your loins, put a smile on your face, and enter the arena again.  They’re relying on us whether they know it or not.


Childhood and adolescence can be challenging enough, especially in the frantic, over-stimulated world we live in.  Giving our kids the ability to organize themselves, even if it drives us temporarily nuts ourselves, will be worth the trouble when we see them navigating on their own, taking care of business, and trying to organize their own kids.  Revenge is sweet. 




25 February 2013 08:54 AM

Social Media at Homework and Study Time

by rbavaria

There was a time not so very long ago when studying at home and getting homework done was at least a manageable – if not beloved – routine.  Families determined when Junior and Susie would hit the books – immediately after school, after dinner, or early in the morning, depending on their best learning times – and then parents would monitor to make sure it happened.  It often took determination and perseverance, but it could be done with helpful routines.


Interrupters like telephones, televisions, and radios were usually in other rooms. 


It’s not so easy now.  Distractions abound in the palm of our hands.  Music?  TV?  Movies?  Games?  Gossiping friends?  Sure, they’re right there. 


Parents’ jobs are more difficult now.  So are kids’.


That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to help our kids learn to deal with the constant interruptions that besiege us daily.  They threaten to shorten our attention spans, to keep us from focusing, and to prevent us from delving deep into learning.


Multitasking’s a myth , especially for young learners who need to concentrate on their schoolwork.  If you need to focus 100% of your attention on this week’s spelling words, you can’t be Tweeting as you study.  One hundred percent means all your attention.  Simple arithmetic.


Here are some tips I’ve accumulated over the years from my own experiences, from other teachers’ helpful suggestions, and, most importantly, from successful students who’ve learned the power of singular concentration when they’re engaged in an important activity like studying, driving, or keeping up with the plot twists of Glee.


  1. Determine.  Make up your mind that now is the time to carve out some alone-time during your day to focus on uninterrupted study and homework.  Enlist the help of parents.  Co-pledge with friends and trusted classmates. 
  2. Plan.  Figure out when your best study time is.  Some students find it helpful to get their homework done right away, so they can have their evenings free.  Others like to let off some steam after school, so they socialize, play sports, or have a part-time job.  And, yes, there really are “morning people,” who like to study early in the day, when it’s quiet and their texting friends are still in bed.
  3. Prioritize.  What’s the most important task?  Learn to put things in their logical, immediate order.  Today’s chemistry test is probably more urgent than the social studies book report due in two weeks. 
  4. Organize.  Concentrating is so much easier if your notebooks – written or electronic – are organized in a way that puts information in your hands and head easily.
  5. Control disruptions.  Rule your electronic equipment.  Unplug, stow in a drawer on the other side of the room (or house, if necessary), or give to someone you trust for a specified period of time.  Tell your texting friends not to expect a response during that time.  You’re the boss, not your phone or your friends.
  6. Say “no”.  You won’t be hurting anyone’s feelings if you explain amiably that you’re unavailable from 8:30-9:30, say, because that’s your study time.  If they get their undies in a bundle, what kind of friends are they, anyway?
  7. Break big tasks into smaller ones.  Big tasks intimidate.  Smaller ones don’t.  So it makes sense to break your major projects – book reports, term papers, science fair projects – into easily manageable chunks. 
  8. Take breaks.  We learn best what we learn first and last.  So, make it a pleasant habit to take enough breaks to give yourself plenty of “last learned” information.  It goes without saying that this doesn’t work if you put off studying until the last minute.
  9. Study in your own place.  Have a place dedicated to your homework and study.  It may be in your room, at the dining room table, or some other convenient place.  The important thing is that you keep it organized, with all of your supplies, books, and equipment in easy reach.  You can’t concentrate if you’re rooting around in a disorganized mess.
  10. Study with friends.  Study buddies keep you on track.  When you study with equally-determined friends, you all reap the benefits.  Teamwork.


Interruptions can throw you off your goals, keep you from learning, and scatter your attention.  Social media, as much fun and energizing as it can be, can also be a prime interrupter.  There’s a time and place for it.  Study time is neither..  Be strong enough to learn to control it before it controls you.



Dr. Rick In The News

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Baltimore Celebrates Read Across America

WMARabc2news.com - March 2, 2011
Read Across America Interview

The Friday Flyer - February 18, 2011
Parents can Nurture the Love of Reading

Multiples and More - July 5, 2010
Expert Post: Dr. Rick of Sylvan Learning

Examiner.com - May 15, 2010
Summer Skill Sharpeners

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