Standardized Tests – How to Help Kids Cope With the Pressure

Are standardized tests in the news in your community?  It seems to be what everyone is talking about around here.  Federal and state-mandated standardized tests are given to almost all students in grades K-12 in the spring, as far as I can understand.  I am not an expert in primary education, standardized testing or curriculum development so I can’t speak about the tests from that angle.  But, I am an expert in anxiety and parenting and have a few thoughts about how testing affects those sorts of things.

I have watched standardized testing season come and go (as a psychologist and mom) for over a decade now.  And here’s the thing: they cause A LOT of anxiety, worry and nervous feelings all the way around.  In parents, in students, in teachers in administrators – probably bus drivers and custodians too – everyone’s feeling the tension.  It’s almost impossible to escape.

Here are some ideas for managing the testing season in your home:

  • Keep your routine normal.  Kids thrive on routine.  Chances are their school days will look a little different during testing season (different class schedules, dismissal times, etc) so it becomes even more important that routines remain the same at home.  Try to keep normal bedtimes, mealtimes and activities going on as usual.
  • Resist the urge to talk about testing.  Your kids – whether in 1st or 11th grade – have likely been hearing about their standardized tests for weeks as teachers prepare them for what to expect.  When they get home they might need a break from all the hype.  A simple: “How did the test go today?” is likely all you need to ask about it.  Grilling our kids, ranting about the philosophical flaws of their school system or putting extra pressure on them to perform academically is rarely helpful.  Keep it light and give them a break.
  • Teach stress management skills.  Life is full of stressors.  Mastering a couple stress management strategies in childhood can be a wonderful thing.  If your child is a little stressed on test days, consider using the opportunity to teach him some basic stress management strategies: Take deep breaths; visual a soothing, restful place; Go on a bike ride or walk.

The vast majority of kids (and parents!) make it through testing season just fine and chances are you (and I!) will, too.  If you are concerned that your child’s worry seems more intense than normal, or it doesn’t resolve after the tests are over, you might consider meeting with a psychologist.  Read more about whether therapy is needed here.

*This post first published March 2015*

College and Alcohol Don’t Have to Go Together

Have you ever seen a movie about life on a college campus?

Are there any that don’t portray those years as one long, alcohol-filled party?

Sure, movies don’t necessarily reflect reality.  But the truth remains that there is a lot of alcohol consumed on college campuses.  According to the National Institutes of Health, 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol and about half admit to binge-drinking.  The statistics don’t stop there.  Check these out:

 

  • Death: 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.

  • Assault: More than 690,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.

  • Sexual Abuse: More than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

  • Academic Problems: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.

Clearly alcohol consumption on college campuses is a big deal.  But, universities are doing something about it.  The University of Colorado (my alma mater!) recently announced a sober living option for students in recovery who wish to live with other students abstaining from alcohol and drugs.  Check it out:

University of Colorado Collegiate Recovery Center

University of Colorado Collegiate Recovery Center

When I did a quick search for other universities and colleges in my area, I found that almost all offered some sort of substance abuse treatment program; typically through their counseling center.  If you or someone you know is a college student and struggling with substance use – it’s important to know there are options – and those options appear to be growing.

For more information about how much alcohol is too much, read more.

National Institutes of Health

 

 

Standardized Testing and Stressed-Out Kids

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 11.03.44 AM

Are standardized tests in the news in your community?  It seems to be what everyone is talking about around here.  Federal and state-mandated standardized tests are given to almost all students in grades K-12 in March, as far as I can understand.  I am not an expert in primary education, standardized testing or curriculum development so I can’t speak about the tests from that angle.  But, I am an expert in anxiety and parenting and have a few thoughts about how testing affects those sorts of things.

Here goes.

I have watched standardized testing season come and go (as a psychologist and mom) for a decade now.  And here’s the thing: they cause A LOT of anxiety, worry and nervous feelings all the way around.  In parents, in students, in teachers in administrators – probably bus drivers and custodians too – everyone’s feeling the tension.  It’s almost impossible to escape.

I am going to stop myself from writing about how unnecessary I think standardized tests are (especially in the quantity in which they are given).  And I’ll keep my mouth shut about how ridiculous I think it is that my 2 grade-schoolers have a combined TWENTY THREE test days in the next month.   And I’ll stop short of encouraging parents to consider opting-out of testing if they feel it’s not in the best interest of their children.

Instead I will focus on how to help your kiddos make it through testing season with their good mental health intact.

  • Keep your routine normal.  Kids thrive on routine.  Chances are their school days will look a little different during testing season (different class schedules, dismissal times, etc) so it becomes even more important that routines remain the same at home.  Try to keep normal bedtimes, mealtimes and activities going on as usual.
  • Resist the urge to talk about testing.  Your kids – whether in 1st or 11th grade – have likely been hearing about their standardized tests for weeks as teachers prepare them for what to expect.  When they get home they might need a break from all the hype.  A simple: “How did the test go today?” is likely all you need to ask about it.  Grilling our kids, ranting about the philosophical flaws of their school system or putting extra pressure on them to perform academically is rarely helpful.  Keep it light and give them a break.
  • Teach stress management skills.  Life is full of stressors.  Mastering a couple stress management strategies in childhood can be a wonderful thing.  If your child is a little stressed on test days, consider using the opportunity to teach him some basic stress management strategies: Take deep breaths; Visual a soothing, restful place; Go on a bike ride or walk.

The vast majority of kids (and parents!) make it through testing season just fine and chances are you (and I!) will, too.  If you are concerned that your child’s worry seems more intense than normal, or it doesn’t resolve after the tests are over, you might consider meeting with a psychologist.  Read more about whether therapy is needed here.

Raising Passionate, Engaged Teens

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It can be easy to feel as if the world is going to Hell – and quickly.  There’s so much bad news out there, and so many stories about disinterested, MineCraft-and-SnapChat-infused youth, it can be easy to lose faith in the younger generations and ourselves (the old people).

So you can understand my interest and excitement at the story developing this week in Colorado.  Basically the School Board made a decision to change the Advanced Placement History courses.  Here’s a brief description of the problem by the Denver Post:

Community members are angry about an evaluation-based system for awarding raises to educators and a proposed curriculum committee that would call for promoting “positive aspects” of the United States and its heritage and avoiding material that would encourage or condone “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

For those of us hoping to raise passionate, engaged youth – this can be a great teaching tool in our own families.  Here are some tips:

  • Read the article about the current strife in Jefferson County together, and ask your kids about their thoughts
  • Ask them if there is anything going on at their school that they would change if they could
  • Share some of the things you might change about your school or work
  • Discuss their ideas about how they might go about changing the world around them – using the Jefferson County teens as an example.  Do you agree with their tactics? Why or why not? Is there something else they could try to get their point across?

Ipads in the Classroom: Good for Mental Health?

I was recently interviewed for a story about using ipads in the classroom.  It’s a hot topic around these parts (Northern Colorado) as the school districts are – for the first time ever! – distributing ipads to all students.  I think most people agree that this is pretty cool, and a sign that our schools are keeping up with the time.  Sure, there will some glitches to work out and some naughtiness that will most definitely occur, but most folks agree that schools need to embrace technology.

But, here’s the angle I didn’t think about until the reporter asked me: “Does ipad use in the classroom count toward a child’s daily allotment of screen time?”

Hmmm…excellent question.

My first thought was “no” because kids are using ipads, presumably, as a learning tool when they are in school.  But the more I thought about it I wondered if a screen-heavy classroom necessitates a screen-lite home life?  After all, it’s more physical activity and in person interaction that we are aiming for when we set screen limits, right?  It’s a tough question, and one that will likely answer itself as the school year wears on.

Here are some of my thoughts that appeared in the article in the Johnstown Breeze:

But is using an iPad all day healthy for children?

“It can definitely be part of a psychologically healthy classroom,” said Smith, who has more than 10 years of experience in the field. “… It can be a wonderful complement.”

Smith said moderation is the key. She said parents should work closely with teachers to be sure about how the iPads are to be used at home. She also said that parents should put strict limits on entertainment screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of entertainment screen time a day for children and teens.

“We need to be careful of not having kids on screen, TV, iPad too much,” she said. “Technology in the classroom can be useful when it’s part of the instruction, not a babysitter.”

Two School Lunches in Seven Minutes

It’s Back to School Day Around here, and I have to admit that I am feeling pretty down about it. I love summer: the pool, the lazy mornings, the lack of homework the evening bike rides.  But here we are, back to backpacks, spelling tests and the dreaded question about what to do for lunch.

Here’s my rule: Once my kids hit kindergarten I no longer pack their lunches. My time is precious, I don’t like doing it and they don’t eat what I pack half the time anyway.  So my kids are left with two choices:

1. Buy lunch at school

2. Pack your own lunch

On the first day of school my girls decided to pack their own lunch.  After checking out some menu options on Produce for Kids they chose the Easy Lunch Stackers.  My contribution? I provided all the ingredients and some brand new bento boxes (so cute!) – then I sat down and watched (and timed) them as they got to work.  Here’s how it went:

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Brand new bento boxes!

All the ingredients for a healthy (and yummy!) lunch!

All the ingredients for a healthy (and yummy!) lunch!

Assembly...

Assembly…

Completed lunch #1

Completed lunch #1

Completed lunch #2

Completed lunch #2

All done! And in less than 7 minutes! I think they could do it even faster with a little practice.  Next up? Taco Bento Box!

Check out more recipes at Produce for Kids – and take the Pledge at #poweryourlunchbox

This just in!!! Reviews of Easy Lunch Stackers:

Eater #1: “They were good. They tasted healthy and yummy.”

Eater #2: “It was delicious!”

Back to School Stress Busters

Back to school clothes.  Back to school supplies.  Back to school parties.  They’re everywhere!  This time of year, you can’t escape the fact that it’s back to school time.  For some of us it’s a time of rejoicing.  For others of us (me) it’s a time of sadness (I always hate to see summer go).  For many it’s a time of stress and worry.

Back to school stress can arise for many reasons:

  • The start of a new school
  • Struggles with friends
  • Trouble with academics
  • Difficulty with classroom behavior
  • Hatred of homework
  • Fears of a new teacher

The good news is, many back to school worries can be managed in the days and weeks before the first day.  Here are some tips:

Practice the first day.  Many of us worry about the unknown. So why not take the guess work out of the first day? Pick out an outfit, get the back pack ready, make a trial lunch and drive to school – just to see what it will be like on the big day.  Many schools even allow nervous students a sneak peak into their classrooms before the official first day of school.  I often recommend this to families, as getting a glimpse of the school, classroom and teacher can do a world of good to the stressed-out student.

Talk about it.  This is one almost seems too easy to actually work – but it does!  Many of us hold in our fears and worries, allowing them to fester and grow.  Instead, allow your student a chance to talk through their thoughts about going back to school.  You might be surprised about what they are worried and excited about!

Keep expectations in check.  While having high and clear expectations can be a wonderful thing, going over them and over them right before school begins might be a breeding ground for stress.  Instead, enjoy the last few days of summer before hammering out expectations for homework, grades and extracurriculars.

For more tips on conquering back to school stress, check out these articles:

Back to School Lunches

Back to School Blues

Back to School Worries

 

 

 

Back To School Lunches

My friends over at Produce for Kids have a really cool thing going as we head back to school.  Here’s the scoop:

The new Power Your Lunchbox Pledge by Produce for Kids®, launching August 11 and running through September 15, encourages parents to pack healthier lunchboxes for their kids this back-to-school season. Visitors to poweryourlunchbox.com can pledge to pack healthier lunchboxes; get RD-approved, kid-friendly lunchbox ideas and tips; and download coupons from companies supporting the program.
 
For every pledge that families or individuals take, participating produce companies will make a 25 cent donation to DonorsChoose.org to fund health and wellness classroom projects around the country. Additionally, Define Bottle will be providing DonorsChoose.org with 20 percent of each sale during the pledge time frame.

Check out some of these yummy-looking lunch ideas:

Need more lunch ideas? Check out Produce for Kids. Want to take the pledge for healthier lunches? Click here.

Happy eating!

Why Are So Many Kids Diagnosed with ADHD?

I was recently interviewed for a story in the Yuma Sun, in which the reporter (Chris McDaniel) sought to answer the question:

Why are so many kids diagnosed with ADHD these days? 

I thought the story turned out great, and did a nice job providing some answers to this question that I have heard so many times.  Hint: we are more aware of the ADHD, its symptoms, and how to diagnose and treat it effectively.

The story also describes the various treatments for ADHD – which don’t just include medication! Check it out:

Yuma Sun: ADHD Vigilance Leading to More Diagonses, Doc Says

Yuma Sun: ADHD Vigilance Leading to More Diagonses, Doc Says

Talking to Troubled Kids

Talking to kids and teenagers when you suspect something is wrong at home, something’s different in their mood or when you think they might be in some kind of trouble with friends can be scary.  It’s hard to know what (and what not) to say.  Many of us are afraid to get involved for fear of making the situation worse, or putting ourselves in a vulnerable position as adults.

I (and a few other psychologists) recently helped the American Psychological Association assemble a tip sheet for talking with kids when you suspect they need help.  These tips are useful for teachers, neighbors, family members, friends – just about anyone who has contact with kids or teens.  Here’s my favorite tip from the list:

Be genuine. 

Try to avoid speaking from a script. Teens can tell when you’re not being genuine. If you are open, authentic and relaxed, it will help them to be the same.

To see more tips, check them out here at APA’s Help Center.