Category Archives: education

EnviroParents w/ UPDATE

by Stacey

My Fussbucket partner Kristin recently watched Al Gore’s movie on global warming called “An Inconvenient Truth.” Since then this whole business about the frightening state of the environment has been bugging her. Makes me think they were on to something with the title of the movie.

She’s decided she wants to start a Green Parenting Group and has proposed the idea on a parenting listserve here in Seattle. This is from her post:

I haven’t been a big environmentalist, but I am getting motivated to take
responsibility for my family’s impact. I also want to look at what I’m
teaching my kids about consumption and their interconnection with
everyone (and everything) else. Since I’m so new to this whole thing,
I’d love to meet up with other families working through these projects
too.

I think this is a great idea. If it takes off, I’m hoping Kristin will report back here on her progress and give us some words of wisdom. In the meantime, I remembered this article from the NY Times last month on smart ways to eat organic without breaking the bank.

The key is to be strategic in your organic purchases. Opting for organic produce, for instance, doesn’t necessarily have a big impact, depending on what you eat. According to the Environmental Working Group, commercially-farmed fruits and vegetables vary in their levels of pesticide residue. Some vegetables, like broccoli, asparagus and onions, as well as foods with peels, such as avocados, bananas and oranges, have relatively low levels compared to other fruits and vegetables.

So how do you make your organic choices count? Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, whose new book “Raising Baby Green” explains how to raise a child in an environmentally-friendly way, has identified a few “strategic” organic foods that he says can make the biggest impact on the family diet, the article says.

1. Milk: “When you choose a glass of conventional milk, you are buying into a whole chemical system of agriculture,’’ says Dr. Greene. People who switch to organic milk typically do so because they are concerned about the antibiotics, artificial hormones and pesticides used in the commercial dairy industry. One recent United States Department of Agriculture survey found certain pesticides in about 30 percent of conventional milk samples and low levels in only one organic sample. The level is relatively low compared to some other foods, but many kids consume milk in large quantities.

This reminds me of the time I was in the grocery store before I had kids and the woman in front of me had a cart filled to the brim. I watched as she unloaded her stuff and was increasingly horrified to see not one, not two, but three gallons of milk on the conveyor belt. I asked her about it and she said her kids drank milk all the time. I considered suggesting she buy herself a cow instead.

2. Potatoes: Potatoes are a staple of the American diet — one survey found they account for 30 percent of our overall vegetable consumption. A simple switch to organic potatoes has the potential to have a big impact because commercially-farmed potatoes are some of the most pesticide-contaminated vegetables. A 2006 U.S.D.A. test found 81 percent of potatoes tested still contained pesticides after being washed and peeled, and the potato has one of the the highest pesticide contents of 43 fruits and vegetables tested, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Yuck. I didn’t know this. They look so innocent all dirt-covered and funny-shaped. Okay, organic potatoes it is.

3. Peanut butter: More acres are devoted to growing peanuts than any other fruits, vegetable or nut, according to the U.S.D.A. More than 99 percent of peanut farms use conventional farming practices, including the use of fungicide to treat mold, a common problem in peanut crops. Given that some kids eat peanut butter almost every day, this seems like a simple and practical switch. Commercial food firms now offer organic brands in the regular grocery store, but my daughter loves to go to the health food store and grind her own peanut butter.

We’re lucky not to have the dreaded peanut allergy in our house (although the jury is still out on Sascha). But every school I know of has at least one kid who is allergic. Growing up, my brother ate peanut butter sandwiches everyday for about seven years. These days, Sage is lucky if he gets one a week because he can’t bring it to school in his lunch.

4. Ketchup: For some families, ketchup accounts for a large part of the household vegetable intake. About 75 percent of tomato consumption is in the form of processed tomatoes, including juice, tomato paste and ketchup. Notably, recent research has shown organic ketchup has about double the antioxidants of conventional ketchup.

Ketchup? What are we Ronald Reagan? Frankly, I’m more disturbed by this: “For some families, ketchup accounts for a large part of the household vegetable intake,” than I am about this: “Recent research has shown organic ketchup has about double the antioxidants of conventional ketchup.” But whatever. Eat organic ketchup.

5. Apples: Apples are the second most commonly eaten fresh fruit, after bananas, and they are also used in the second most popular juice, after oranges, according to Dr. Greene. But apples are also one of the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. The good news is that organic apples are easy to find in regular grocery stores.

Yay, apples! For a complete list of Dr. Greene’s strategic organic choices, visit Organic Rx on his website.

Now for an amusing and unrelated segway: Greenpeace wants to name a whale and has gone to great lengths to dream up a long list of 29 earth/crunchy names (Paz, Manami, Libertad, etc.) for people to vote on.

The 30th name? Mr. Splashy Pants, with 65 percent of the vote and garnering 16 times the votes of the leading next contender. “Based on the earnestness of the rest of the site, this appears to be an unintended consequence of enviro culture clashing with popular culture,” writes my friend Jon at the National Resources Defense Council, who I thank for the tip. “Run,” he advises, “Cast your votes.”

UPDATE: Check out Kristin’s new blog – “Going Green Family.”  It’s got tips on going green for the holidays and easy ways to make your home more eco-friendly.

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Filed under consumer culture, education, family, kids, life, nature, nutrition, parenting

Behavior Problems and School Success

by Stacey

Two new studies shed some positive light on irksome behavior problems in young children. According to this article in the NY Times, one study showed that kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school. The other study found that children with attention deficit disorders suffer primarily from a delay in brain development, not from a deficit or flaw.

In one study, reported in the journal Developmental Psychology, an international team of researchers analyzed measures of social and intellectual development from over 16,000 children, the article says. Kindergartners who interrupted the teacher, defied instructions and even picked fights were performing as well in reading and math as well-behaved children of the same abilities when they both reached fifth grade, the study found.

In the other study, researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and McGill University, using imaging techniques, found that the brains of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder developed normally but more slowly in some areas than the brains of children without the disorder, the article says. The disorder, also known as A.D.H.D., is by far the most common psychiatric diagnosis given to disruptive young children; 3 percent to 5 percent of school-age children are thought to be affected.

Doctors said that the report, being published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps to explain why so many children grow out of the diagnosis in middle school or later, often after taking stimulant medications to improve concentration in earlier grades.

[G]overnment psychiatric researchers compared brain scans from two groups of children: one with attention deficit disorder, the other without. The scientists had tracked the children — 223 in each group — from ages 6 to 16, taking multiple scans on each child.

In a normally developing brain, the cerebral cortex — the outer wrapping, where circuits involved in conscious thought are concentrated — thickens during early childhood. It then reverses course and thins out, losing neurons as the brain matures through adolescence. The study found that, on average, the brains of children with A.D.H.D. began this “pruning” process at age 10 ½, about three years later than their peers.

The article says that about 80 percent of those kids with attention problems were taking or had taken stimulant drugs, and the researchers did not know the effect of the medications on brain development. Doctors consider stimulant drugs a reliable way to improve attention in the short term; the new study is not likely to change that attitude.

This all seems like good news for kids. It’s good to know that kids are learning what they need to know even if they’re wiggling and protesting along the way. As for ADHD, seems like it would be a relief to know there’s a good chance your child will outgrow it over time. The article says that three out of four kids with the disorder grow out of it.

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Filed under boys, child development, drugs, education, family, fears, girls, kids, mental health, parenting, preschool, psychology

Diagnosing Autism Early

by Stacey

Pediatricians should screen all children for autism twice by age 2, according to two new reports issued today by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Up until now, the group recommended screening between 18 and 24 months of age, according to this AP story. Experts say one in 150 U.S. children have the troubling developmental disorder, the article says.

Symptoms such as babies who do not babble at 9 months, do not turn when their name is called, and do not show an interest in objects pointed to by parents, are all warning signs, the group says, and should be taken seriously.

“Red Flags” that are absolute indications for immediate evaluation include: no babbling or pointing or other gesture by 12 months; no single words by 16 months; no two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months; and loss of language or social skills at any age, according to a statement from the group.

Early intervention is crucial for effective treatment, the statement says. The report strongly advises intervention as soon as an ASD diagnosis is seriously considered rather than deferring until a definitive diagnosis is made. The child should be actively engaged in intensive intervention at least 25 hours per week, 12 months per year with a low student-to-teacher ratio allowing for sufficient one-on-one time. Parents should also be included.

The authors caution that not all children who display a few of these symptoms are autistic and they said parents shouldn’t overreact to quirky behavior, the AP story says. Just because a child likes to line up toy cars or has temper tantrums “doesn’t mean you need to have concern, if they’re also interacting socially and also pretending with toys and communicating well,” said co-author Dr. Scott Myers, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician in Danville, Pa.

Another educational tool, a Web site called Autism Speaks that debuted in mid-October, offers dozens of video clips of autistic kids contrasted with unaffected children’s behavior, says the AP article. It aims to promote early diagnosis and treatment of the disorder.

For very young children, therapy typically involves fun activities, such as bouncing balls back and forth or sharing toys to develop social skills; there is repeated praise for eye contact and other behavior autistic children often avoid.

That doesn’t sound so bad. From the sound of it parents, we need to be on the lookout for the warning signs and then express any concerns to our kids’ doctors. Don’t wait and hope it will go away, the experts say. Early intervention is the way to go.

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Filed under baby, brain, child development, children's health, education, family, kids, life, mental health, parenting, play, preschool, psychology, temper tantrum, toddler

Sleep Smarts

by Stacey

As a parent of two very young children, I obsess over sleep. I read books about it, I avoid activities during the day so my kids can get it, and I long for the days when I got enough of it. According to this article in New York magazine, I would be smart to hold fast to my obsession until my kids are out of high school. Apparently, sleep matters a lot not only to little kids and their desperately fatigued parents, but to elementary, middle school, and high school kids as well.

Studies show that kids from first grade to high school get about an hour less sleep each night than they did 30 years ago. Even kindergartners have lost a half hour in the last three decades. Life is busier than it used to be and working parents want to hang out with their kids before bedtime. “Until now, we could overlook the lost hour because we never really knew its true cost to children,” the article says.

Using newly developed technological and statistical tools, sleep scientists have recently been able to isolate and measure the impact of this single lost hour. Because children’s brains are a work-in-progress until the age of 21, and because much of that work is done while a child is asleep, this lost hour appears to have an exponential impact on children that it simply doesn’t have on adults.

This is interesting stuff. I never thought much about the effects of sleep deprivation until it became a way of life for me. Now I truly understand how a loss of sleep can lead you to forget where you live or where you parked your car at the mall. So it makes sense to me that it would have a big impact on children who are more sensitive and vulnerable than adults to everything else in life.

One study conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University found that an hour difference in sleep between fourth graders led to a performance gap of two grade levels in school, which means a slightly sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a fourth-grader. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh [the lead researcher] explains.

Dr. Paul Suratt of the University of Virginia studied the impact of sleep problems on vocabulary-test scores of elementary-school students. He found a seven-point reduction in scores. Seven points, Suratt notes, is significant: “Sleep disorders can impair children’s I.Q.’s as much as lead exposure.”

Studies show the effects of sleep loss on school performance are most pronounced among high school students. Studies of thousands of high school students show that even fifteen minutes of sleep can make a difference in grades earned in school.

Using functional MRI scans, researchers say that the brains of tired children have more trouble encoding memories, making it less likely that they will recall what they just learned. In addition, fatigue makes it more difficult for children to control their impulses and more likely they will become distracted from studying.

Not all of this is the fault of parents. In some school districts, the first bell rings early in the morning. Schools that have delayed the start of the school day have seen remarkable results in their students’ achievement.

The best known of these is in Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, where the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of Edina’s students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent averaged 1500, an increase that couldn’t be attributed to any other variable. “Truly flabbergasting,” said Brian O’Reilly, the College Board’s executive director for SAT Program Relations, on hearing the results.

The article also talks about the potential link between obesity and sleep loss in children. “All the studies point in the same direction: On average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep more,” the article says. “This isn’t just in the U.S.; scholars around the world are considering it, as they watch sleep data fall and obesity rates rise in their own countries.”

Three foreign studies showed strikingly similar results. One analyzed Japanese elementary students, one Canadian kindergarten boys, and one young boys in Australia. They all showed that kids who get less than eight hours of sleep have about a 300 percent higher rate of obesity than those who get a full ten hours of sleep. Within that two-hour window, it was a “dose-response” relationship, according to the Japanese scholars.

I have to admit, there is a part of me that’s wondering if these are causal relationships. Perhaps there were other factors that led to the drop in academic performance or in the rate of obesity? I’m not totally convinced. But it’s good to know there’s the possibility and that maintaining good sleep habits for my kids is important. I certainly won’t be the one to underestimate the power of a good night’s rest. Those were the days…

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Filed under brain, child development, children's health, education, family, family life, kids, parenting, sleep, sleep deprivation, toddler, youth

College Before and After

by Stacey

Last Sunday the NY Times Magazine ran a series of articles about college. Getting in, paying for it, advice from the recently graduated, that kind of thing. I know I’ve ranted about this before, but why is this whole getting into college thing so freaking insane? Whenever I read about it, I want to hide under the bed with a blanket over my head.

In one article, called Tense Times at Bronxville High, a student named Win (actually his name is Winthrop Pearce Rutherford, which is explained by what I’m about to say) spent his life trying to get into Princeton University. His grandfather, his father, all of his uncles and great-uncles on his dad’s side all went to Princeton and all he wanted to do was to follow in their footsteps.

Clearly the dude had legacy. But he also had a perfect grade point average, was co-editor of the school newspaper, had SAT scores totaling 2,200 out of 2,400, was co-captain of the cross-country team and was a strong-enough German student that he regularly traveled to Hunter College in New York City to take a high-level class, the article says.

Cut to the chase: he didn’t get in. Huh? What more could they want? Oh, but wait! Win had a skeleton in his closet. Before attending Bronxville High, he was a student at St. Paul’s School, a fancy boarding school in New Hampshire. The article says he left the school because of a drinking incident.

Who knows if that was the reason he wasn’t accepted to Princeton. And no one really needs to cry for Win. He ended up getting accepted at the University of Virginia and from the sound of it, he will have the family funds to enjoy his college years free from financial worries.

But this story gives me the creeps. The thought that teenagers have to be these over-achieving, over-scheduled, perfect people is downright frightening. One misstep and your chances are ruined? Come on! That’s cruel.

After shuddering my way through that article, I turned to another one called Don’t Worry Be Students. The article describes a NY Times poll of a few thousand recent college graduates. The message from the post-college world is, it doesn’t matter so much where you go to school, because “college is great” and high school kids should really “chill out.”

Those surveyed said that the criteria they used to select schools ended up not being important to them once they got on campus.

The young alums acknowledge, in a variety of their responses, that the qualities they or their parents thought were crucial in choosing a college were not necessarily the things that mattered most once they got there. Magazine rankings and a school’s reputation — both extremely important in the minds of many applicants — are often of far less significance to graduates as they reflect on what made their college years worthwhile.

Instead, experiences with friends or extracurricular activities were the memories that stood out in their minds. Most said that the education they received was directly related to the work they found after graduation.

So why all this insanity? It seems fear driven, but I can’t put my finger on what exactly people are so afraid of. Any thoughts?

It also strikes me as kind of tragic. If Win with his perfect GPA, extracurriculars up the wazoo, and a legacy that beats G.W.’s can’t get into Princeton, that says to me that lots of other kids are going to be sorely disappointed in the spring. Is it worth it?

Pressed several months after his rejection to explain what was riding on his application to Princeton, Win himself couldn’t really put his finger on it. “I don’t even know what I wanted,” he says. “It was almost like this intangible thing. Getting into a good college — it’s like it was like some sort of a reward for lifetime service.” He struggles and starts again. “It was this built-up desire — part of it was for my family, but that was only part of it.” It didn’t have to be Princeton, he’d come to realize. Princeton just happened to be the school that became the fetish object. “That’s what you’re working so hard for — so you rationalize it.” If you’re working that hard for something your entire 18-year-old life, it can’t just be a good school — it has to be something bigger than that. “It’s like getting into college becomes the F. Scott Fitzgerald green light at the end of the dock, the unreachable future you’re striving for.”

Win grins, as usual, acknowledging the rarefied world he’s a part of, while simultaneously making fun of himself for it. Part of the anticlimax, he said, was the absence he suddenly felt of some other pressing goal (presumably what he’d have four years at U. Va. to figure out). “I’d worked it over so much in my brain,” Win says. “Now what?”

How ’bout just hanging out with your friends and being a kid for a little longer? You only get one chance at that and then lots of years to work and strive and stress out.

What do you all think? Can we start the backlash now so when my kids reach this stage (in fifteen years) all this craziness will be a thing of the past?

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Mix It Up

by Stacey

Separating students into groups based on ability may actually impede learning, according to a new study from the University of Sussex in England. Researchers followed 700 American teenagers for four years and found that children in mixed ability mathematics classes outperformed those grouped by ability, according to this press release issued by the university.

Students in mixed ability classes also were better behaved than those who were grouped by ability. “Children who are put into low sets in school quickly learn to view themselves as unsuccessful and develop anti-school values that lead into general anti-social behaviour,” said Jo Boaler, the lead researcher and a professor of education at Sussex.

The study, which analyzed the results of different methods of teaching math in three American high schools, found that an approach that involved students not being divided into ability groups, but being given a shared responsibility for each other’s learning, led to a significant improvement in the achievements of high and low achieving students. The approach had further benefits in that it taught students to take responsibility for each other and to regard that responsibility as an important part of life.

“Many parents support ability grouping because they think it is advantageous for high attaining children,” said Professor Boaler. “But my recent study of a new system of grouping in the US showed that the system benefited students at high and low levels and the high attaining students were the most advantaged by the mixed ability grouping, because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth.”

Professor Boaler was also the author of an earlier study in England that found that mixed ability classes achieved at higher levels than those put into sets. Her earlier research is reported in her book, Experiencing School Mathematics. Her recent study, ‘Promoting “relational equity” and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed ability approach’, was presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference earlier this month and is to be published in the British Educational Research Journal in the coming months.

Soon after I graduated from college I taught first grade in a Baltimore City public school for two years. It was a large school with five first grade classes. Because I was a first-year teacher, I got all the low-scoring students in my class. It was explained to me that having students who were all at the same level would make it simpler for me as a teacher.

It was not. Since none of my students understood what I was trying to teach them, they all goofed around instead. It was a behavior management disaster and I couldn’t wait for the school year to end. I’m sorry to say that I probably sent most of those children off to second grade with few reading skills.

The next year I had a great class with children of mixed abilities. It was like night and day. The smartest ones picked up on the material right away, the middle ones watched and listened and then caught on, and then me and all the other kids in the class could help the remaining few with the independent work. All my kids learned to read that year.

Now my son Sage goes to Montessori preschool where there are mixed-aged classrooms. His class has children ranging from three to six years old. The next class has six to nine year olds and so on. This allows the older students to teach and model for the younger ones. That helps them solidify what they have learned and it gives the little ones a chance to learn from someone who isn’t an adult.

So I say, mixed ability, mixed ages, whatever it is, mix those kids up!

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“Mama Owie”

by Stacey

Listen up! Teach your kids how to dial 911 and it could save your life. That’s what happened in the case of Erika Miller. She passed out from a migraine (okay, so her life wasn’t in danger, but it could have been) and her two-year old daughter Elana called 911 for help.

Miller told ABC News that she had recently taught her daughter how to call 911 in case of an emergency. Lesson here? Never underestimate your kids.

Check out this video.

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