One of the things parents discover early in their child's academic career is that schools have changed since they were kids. Some of these changes can be baffling. Why is little Lulu bringing home a journal littered with spelling errors and still crowned with a gold star?
Sharon Landesman Ramey and her husband, Craig T. Ramey, two highly respected child development researchers, have come to your aid. Their new book, "Going to School: How to Help Your Child Succeed," is designed as a handbook for parents of children ages 3 to 8. But in fact, it is a book parents of newborns should take a look at, because the foundation for learning, for speaking, for reading is laid down from the beginning. "The amount of positive stimulation a child receives is directly related to the child's behavioral and brain development," they write.
I played peekaboo with my children and, more recently, with my infant twin grandsons, who rewarded me with wonderful smiles. What I did not realize until reading "Going to School" is that I was helping them develop the concept of object constancy, which the Rameys describe as "coming to know that an object continues to exist when it is out of sight."
I asked Sharon Ramey what this generation of parents needs to do that is different from the past. There is a great need, she said, "for parents to connect with other parents." In many families, both parents are working; they don't have community roots; many are single. They run the risk of social isolation. She advises parents to form social connections with other parents: "Being in contact with other parents is one of the greatest safeguards parents can have and one of the greatest sources of information." If a child is being bullied or ostracized, connected parents can contact other parents to find out if it is happening to other children, or just theirs, and then take appropriate action.
Families also need to be better organized than ever, she said. Those that are disorganized put a child at risk of doing poorly in school: "There are lots more permission slips, more notes from teachers and schools going home that need to come back and come back on time. Parents of kindergartners through third-graders need special school calendars and special drawers for papers and books that come home." This helps both parent and child avoid a lot of frustration in the daily process of getting everything together to take to school.
"Happy chaos doesn't work in the early years of school," she said. "The ones from disorganized families are the ones who aren't ready for show and tell. They are embarrassed. It places them in an awkward position. If it happens chronically, the children tend to disengage from school."
She further advised parents to learn about the new methods for teaching reading. "If a child is in a school that is teaching only phonics or only the whole language approach, that school is out of date. . . . It used to be a matter of opinion as to what works best. It is no longer a matter of opinion. It's a matter of fact." A panel of experts concluded several years ago that the best approach combines phonics and whole language, she said. "You have to directly instruct children in how to decode written language, rather than just hope they do it on their own. You teach them directly about the components that go into words. It's giving them clues rather than hoping they'll discover it on their own."
She said a lot of teachers are sending home information to parents about what they are doing in the classroom about putting together letter combinations or finding little words inside big words. "Teachers want to share so parents can do parallel activities at home." The expert panel concluded that this method of teaching reading can reduce disabilities in learning and reading by as much as 50 percent, she said.
"Some of this seems confusing to parents who see the child learning to read and decode at the same time they see the teacher letting them invent spelling," Ramey said. "Some of the best new early childhood instruction allows children to feel very capable and show how smart they are. If you only allow children to write perfectly, children learn to write simplistically. This way, they are more willing to write a lengthy sentence with some misspelling if they still get a star on a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
"Parents need to understand why the language arts are being taught differently. It keeps children very engaged. It allows them to express their competence and their creativity, and at the same time they can gradually acquire the very technical skills of punctuation, capitalization and spelling."
Despite the serious problems schools face, Ramey thinks there's been a lot of progress both in the schools and in active parental engagement. "Going to School" is very blunt about this: "Parents have a huge impact on how their children fare in school. . . . You don't need to devote full time to the job, but you do need to be informed, attentive and active." It is filled with ideas for how parents can help their children succeed in school through what Ramey calls "natural teaching . . . that's fun and allows the parents' personality and preferences to get expressed."
My younger son spent hours watching sports on TV with his father, the sportswriter. By the time he was in early elementary school, he knew how to figure sports statistics. To this day, he has a remarkable ability with numbers. "That's the form of natural teaching that really works the best," Ramey said. "When a parent is passionate about something and then uses it as a springboard for teaching children, they sense that enthusiasm. For us, as developmental scientists and educators, motivation, enthusiasm and love of learning is every bit as important as a set of skills at a given age."
These are qualities that stay with you long after you've forgotten how to find the circumference of a circle.