Your Child’s Brain by Grade Level

By Deborah Williams

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Whether or not it’s your first child, each stage of development can be puzzling.  Hank Pellissier, writer for the Great Schools website, explains the insights from neuroscience about your child’s mind at different grade levels.  After clicking on a grade level from the index page, go through the slideshow.  Each grade shows the uniqueness of children at that grade level.

A few guidelines from the site follow:



First Grade

Second Grade

Third Grade

Fourth Grade

Fifth Grade



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New Trend in Classroom Furniture

By Deborah Williams

Research has shown educators a way to combat obesity and to enhance attention among its students.  An article by Alison DeNisco on the District Administration explains that many schools have put standing desks in the classrooms.

We have heard the statistics about obesity:  In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.  Obese children have an 85 percent chance of being obese as adults.

Texas A & M university associate professor Mark Benden studied the effect of using standing desks by studying four fourth grade classrooms in Texas.  Two classes received the standing desks and stools while the other two classes had standard desks.  For ten days, students in all four classes wore arm bands that measured calories burned.

The research findings were interesting:

Standing desks are more expensive than standard desks, but Benden anticipates standing desks to be more common in classrooms across America.  View this video about standing desks in classrooms:

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The Best Way to Take Notes

By Deborah Williams

Many parents of elementary school aged children are surprised that heir children do not receive consistent handwriting instruction.  Unless they happen to have a teacher who makes it a priority, most students will never get instruction on how to form manuscript or cursive letters correctly.  It’s quite common that many graduate from high school without knowing how to sign their own names!  The availability of technology and the emphasis on state or national standards make handwriting instruction a very low priority for teachers.  Schools may want to rethink that notion if they want more learning to take place.  In a recent post on the PBS’s Nova Next blog, Allison Eck reports that the results of a study indicate, “students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those [who] type their notes on laptops.”

The study’s researchers, Princeton University’s Pam Mueller and UCLA’s Daniel Oppenheimer, tested students’ memories after half took notes by hand and half took notes on computers for the following:  factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and synthesizing capabilities.  They found that even though the students who took notes on computers had more words than those who took notes by hand, they had weaker “conceptual understanding across the board.”

Some scientists are skeptical.  Taking notes on a computer allows the quick organizational formatting that allows students to “delete, reorder, and build ideas” can be done in an instant.  Those things cannot be done quickly if students are taking notes by hand.  On the other hand, taking notes by hand engages the note taker in mental work—organizing, synthesizing, and analyzing—that supports learning.  Cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork asserted that taking notes by hand creates “desirable difficulty”: If learning is made harder, students will retain information better.

There are some times when students should use computers to take notes and times when they should take notes by hand:

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Two Math Classes, A Boom or a Bust?

By Deborah Williams

In an effort to close the achievement gap, many schools implement a “double dose” of math for middle school students who need remedial help.  This means that those students have two math classes instead of one.  This requires the student to miss taking other courses—usually electives such as foreign language, physical education, art, or music.

Liana Heitin reports on the Education Week’s Curriculum Matters blog that a study of this practice shows that this is helpful at first, but, over time, the benefits decrease. Eric Taylor, a doctoral student at Stanford, studies sixth graders who were taking two math classes—one regular and one remedial.  Here are his findings:

These results seem to contradict the “positive and substantial” gains of Chicago’s double-dose algebra policy for some of its ninth graders.

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The Reading Shift

By Deborah Williams

You may have heard of “The Fourth Grade Shift.”  It’s the developmental milestone that typically occurs in the fourth grade.  It is when students no longer learn to read but switch to reading to learn.  The Shift includes “a change in automatic word processing, a crucial component of the reading shift theory.”  The report on the Science Daily website seems to shut this theory down.

Dartmouth researchers have analyzed elementary students’ brain waves and have concluded that the word processing of fourth graders does not automatically change at that time.  “Automatic word processing is the brain’s ability to determine whether a group of symbols constitutes a word within milliseconds, without the brain’s owner realizing the process is taking place.”  Actually, the researchers found that some of the word processing becomes automatic before fourth grade while others happen after the fifth grade.  That means that fifth and sixth grade students are continuing to develop their “neurological reading system.”

Lead researcher, Donna Coch, found evidence that “…at least through the fifth grade, even children who read well are letting stimuli into the neural word processing system that more mature readers do not.”  She asserts “teachers and parents should not expect their fourth-graders, or even their fifth graders, to be completely automatic, adult-like readers.”

Many states and localities use this time in children’s education to establish policy and interventions.  This video speaks to the issue and provides some tips for parents to help their children read better:

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Born to Learn

By Deborah Williams

Often, a person who is good at reading is not as good at mathematics, and vice versa; however, a new study described by Robert Preidt on the Everyday Health website shows, “Nearly half of the genes that affect children’s reading ability also play a role in their math skills.”  Generally speaking, heredity has a lot to do with how easy it is for a child to learn.

Despite genetic influences, the researchers found that there are things that can be done to improve a child’s learning.  Study author, Robert Plomin of King’s College London explained, “—heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone—it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”

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Apprenticeship Program in California

By Deborah Williams

The economic situation in our country has caused a spike in higher education enrollment, but many degree holders still find it difficult to find suitable employment.  Michelle Maitre posted an article on the Edsource Today website about an apprentice program that provides on-the-job training, college-level coursework, and great pay for doing so.

The state of California has established “the largest apprenticeship system in the nation with about 54,000 apprentices training in more than 800 occupations, mostly in the construction trades.”  Surprisingly, the apprenticeship model, which enjoys great success in Germany and other countries in Europe, is virtually an unknown opportunity for most of California’s high school students and young adults.  They are not aware that going to college is not their only option.

This program is a win-win for stakeholders.  Programs like this one is seen as a way to satisfy the country’s increasing need for skilled workers.  The state paid part of the costs for training and the apprentices’ salaries, but the providers—often trade unions—pay the bulk of the costs of the programs.  They hire and train the apprentices.  Because apprenticeship programs are tied to community colleges, the apprentice earns college credit for the classroom-based instruction that they earn, and those credits can be applied toward an associate degree if the apprentice chooses to pursue one at that college.  The program can last from two to five years, but apprentices earn a good hourly wage for on-the-job training with the possibility of raises as the proceed through the program.

Apprenticeship programs are seen as a way to retrain workers in emerging fields.  “Rapidly changing fields such as health care and manufacturing are looking to the apprenticeship model to help provide a stream of well-trained workers.“

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More Participation in Summer Programs

By Deborah Williams

Edsource Today writer, Susan Frey, reports that among the number of families with school-age children, about one third of them had enrolled at least one child in a summer program in 2013.  Five years earlier, only 25% of those families had their children in summer programs.

The benefits of their participation are huge.  Students from low-income households lose more than a month of education achievement from the previous school year during the summer because their families cannot provide enrichment activities that help them to retain gains from the school year.  More participation in summer programs is a welcomed change that benefits the students.

The reasons for this increase seem to stem from a few possibilities:

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The Future of School Libraries

By Deborah Williams

The abundance of digital media has caused librarians to rethink how they will serve their patrons.  Some public libraries offer previously unimagined uses, and the new uses are evolving.    MindShift’s Luba Vangelova, posted an article about an innovative school library that provides a glimpse into what the next generation of school libraries may resemble.  The library at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, Virginia has been re-designed, and it is not your grandmother’s school library!

Monticello’s library is not the quiet research space that we may associate with a library; it’s a “Learning Commons.”  Librarian Joan Ackroyd explains, “People no longer have to come to a library to get information, so the library has to get people coming in for different reasons.”  She and her staff made several changes:

It took a while, but students learned that with the new freedoms that such a resource provides comes responsibility.  At first, students weren’t studying.  Now, students have adjusted’ they even police each other if someone becomes too disruptive.

Teachers still can hold classes there if they want their classes to do research or if they need more equipment and personnel.

Despite a school population of 1,104, the library “logs more than 33,000 student visits per year outside class time…”  The Virginia School Boards Association in its “Showcases for Success” recognized the Monticello High School Library.

Learn more about another school that transformed an elementary library to a learning commons:

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Reducing Stress on the Playground

By Deborah Williams

Constant stress is a problem for many children, and it keeps them from learning.  Many schools have implemented programs that will help them to deal with stress, but a new study suggests that reducing stress can begin outside—on the playground.  This does not mean just providing more recess time.  The University of Colorado Boulder study suggests, “playing in schoolyards that feature natural habitats and trees and not just asphalt and recreation equipment reduces children’s stress and inattention…”

This study observed elementary students’ recess in wooded areas, fourth through sixth graders’ use of a natural habitat for writing and science lessons, and high school students’ volunteering as gardening at sites in Baltimore and Denver.  The results were interesting.  In the Baltimore elementary school, these were some outcomes:

Similar outcomes were noted from the Denver participants:

CU-Boulder professor of environmental design and lead researcher, Louise Chawla suggests that schools that want to provide natural habitats for students but have only built outdoor spaces should tear out some of the asphalt areas or create joint-use agreements with city parks and open space.

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