Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trainers for Four-Year Olds! Will Kids Pay a Price for Getting an Athletic “Leg Up?”
by Jim Lobdell

A year or so ago as I was waiting to give a presentation entitled, “A Balanced Approach to Navigating Youth Sports” to a group of preschool and elementary parents, a mom approached me and asked if it was okay if her kids’ “trainer” attended the session. This was a new one for me—4 and 5 year olds with an athletic trainer. I had visions of little kids doing boot camp-style exercises, but it turned out the trainer was a recent college grad with a sports background who was, according to the mom, “teaching them fun games that were sports related so they could begin developing a good fitness foundation.”

Hiring athletic trainers is all part of the “earlier is better, more is better” arms race that pervades youth sports, just as it does academics (think Kumon, academic camps, tutors, test prep industry, and private college advisors). Now at seemingly any age, opportunities abound for parents to provide “additional support” for their kids’ athletic development. But parents should be aware of the hidden costs of trying to get an athletic “leg up” for their kids.

Don’t waste your money on trainers at early ages. Left to their own devices, preschool and elementary school kids do just fine managing their own athletic development. Observe activities on the school playground and you’ll see they gravitate naturally to activities that fit their developmental capabilities, like climbing on play structures, jumping rope or playing handball against a wall. Activities like these form the foundation for more discreet, sport-specific athletic skills. Here’s what Lee Taft, a nationally-renowned fitness trainer, had to say about the game of tag:

“Tag might be the greatest game ever invented. There is linear speed, lateral speed, angular take-offs, moving backwards, avoidance skills, body control skills, balance, flexibility, coordination, raising and lowering of center mass, setting up opponents, strategies, team work… Basically, tag will force you to reach deep into the movement bag of tricks your body has stored.”

When your kids start playing youth sports, make sure the focus is on fun. If your kid does have talent and interest, they need to fall in love with the sport in order to want to endure the rigorous training it typically takes (10 years, 10,000 hours of practice) to compete at elite levels. Too serious too quick—be it year-round club teams or “performance enhancement”—often leads to burn-out or injury. In fact, 70 percent of 13 year olds drop out of sports altogether. The number one reason? “Because it’s just not fun anymore.”

Be judicious in considering employing an athletic trainer. There are lots of options for individualized performance training, especially as kids enter adolescence and start getting serious about their sport. If your kid is really into a sport, asks for specialized training, and finds a trainer whose approach aligns with your values and fits your budget, then it may be worth considering. But make sure your kid is driving the bus on this one. Many kids resent the pressure they feel from parents who push for more or who are fulfilling athletic dreams through them.  

Jim Lobdell, M.A., is a Challenge Success Co-Founder, educational consultant and publisher with expertise in curriculum design, school reform, parent education, and youth sports. Mr. Lobdell co-founded Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, widely regarded as the nation’s most innovative publisher of K-12 social studies curriculum. He has authored several teaching methodology books, including "Bring Learning Alive! Engaging All Learners in the Diverse Classroom" and advised school districts nationwide on teacher-training and site-based reform. A former NCAA athlete and high school social studies teacher, Mr. Lobdell currently advises the Positive Coaching Alliance, working to transform youth sports by helping to create a more positive and character building experience for young athletes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Giving Your Child A ‘Leg Up’: A Short-Term Boost With Long-Term Consequences
by Stephanie Rafanelli

As the school year winds down, many teachers assign thought-provoking, topical projects and year-end tests to allow the students to both synthesize the semester or year’s learning and also demonstrate an ability to articulate new knowledge. While assessment itself is a fiercely debated topic and is the subject of many ongoing studies, the essential goal for any type of assessment is to allow the student to demonstrate her or his understanding. Key word: student. While I feel confident that many parents can make a lovely model of Mission San Juan Capistrano and write some excellent paragraphs to accompany the fourth grade project, that is not the point.

Unfortunately, there seems to be widespread angst about these final challenges. Performance on any particular task is perceived to either ‘make or break’ the year’s learning. Concerned parents want to be sure that their daughter or son’s work is the best it can possibly be, and here is where they veer from being supportive to being over-involved: they begin doing the work. It might be anything from lettering on the poster board to heavy editing of the final paper. While the parent feels she or he is giving their child a boost by smoothing any rough edges, they are, in fact sending some powerfully negative messages to their child. Among these are two that concern me the most:

1.     I do not think you are capable of doing this yourself, so I will do it. The parent could be right – their child may not have mastered design layout or persuasive argumentation. However, the only way they will master these skills is through practice. Years of practice can lead to mastery; years of parental intervention can lead to learned helplessness.

2.     The final product is more important than the process of learning. Academic integrity, improvement, and persistence, among other qualities, are devalued in favor of a disingenuous, but lovely, final creation. The symptoms of this focus on product can be seen in a wide array of disconcerting news, from reports of the SAT cheating scandal in New York to myriad articles about teen stress and health.

When this topic comes up in parent meetings, parents tell me, “Well, I did do a lot of the project, but that is only because I know all the other parents were doing it for their kids!” Parents, the teachers know. We, who are lucky enough to spend part of each day with your children, have observed the way each student writes, draws, solves, and collaborates. We know when the work is not your child’s. Rather than giving your child a boost, you are demonstrating that you can complete a project at a grade level you probably completed long ago. Trust your child’s educator and, more importantly, trust your child. Picture him at age thirty – will he have had enough learning opportunities to feel confident about tackling new challenges, or will he still need a boost from you? 

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

by Dr. Madeline Levine

A “Leg Up” or Cut Off at the Knees

In 1996 a young couple, Julie and Bill Clark, from Alpharetta, Georgia, invested $18,000 of their savings to produce a VHS (remember those) product called Baby Einstein. Julie, a former teacher and stay-at-home mom, and her entrepreneurial husband quickly added an extensive line of videos with names like Baby Van Gogh and Baby Mozart, beginning a Baby Einstein line-up that would eventually include multiple videos, educational toys and even a television show. The target audience for these videos was infants and children ages 3 months to 3 years (or perhaps more accurately, the parents who put their babies in front of these videos, so that mom or dad could jump into the shower, guilt free.) In any event, the Clark’s business skyrocketed, growing from $1 million to $10 million to $400 million in a little over a decade. Popularity and profits soared and, in 2001, Disney bought a majority share of the company. Estimates were that one in three American households with a baby owned at least one Baby Einstein product.

Parents bought these products for several reasons. They were clearly preferable to the standard fare of television and parents could control what their child could see, but most importantly, these products were touted as having the ability to enhance a baby’s vocabulary, musical ability or appreciation of art. In other words, they promised the elixir most seductive to parents- the opportunity to give their child an advantage, a leg up in what was assumed to be the competitive world of infancy and early childhood.

Unfortunately, researchers at the University of Washington found that babies ages 8 to 16 months actually had poorer language development than same age babies who were not exposed to the videos. Babies who watched “baby DVDs/videos” such as Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby acquired, on average, 6-8 fewer words per hour of viewing than babies who did not watch these videos. Older toddlers were not found to have any effect, positive or negative, from being exposed to the videos. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company offered a full refund for all Baby Einstein DVDs/videos purchased between 2004 and 2009.

If your child watched some Baby Einstein or other type of baby videos, don’t get hopped up. For most kids, words lost at a year are made up over the many following years. Throughout childhood, there will be many things that test as not especially helpful to their development, but hopefully many more that will. The real problem is that we don’t seem to know the difference between what actually gives our kid a "leg up", and what, at best only appears to, and at worst, is actually damaging them. A new smartphone app tells us how “normal” our infants I/O (intake/outtake) is. So now our phones can provide us with invaluable information like how closely your baby’s poop schedule resembles the poop schedule of other infants. Or whether your child is average at moving, smiling, cooing, peeing or eating. If, unfortunately, your child is hospitalized for some reason his or her I/O is important. For the vast majority of infants it is irrelevant except it means that parents are pouring over data points instead of pouring over their babies.

If by a "leg up” we mean to arm our children early and properly with the skills that are most likely to advance healthy development, here are some research-based tips for promoting learning, attachment, enthusiasm and well-being. Remember the point is not to be the swiftest (remember the tortoise and the hare) but to have the skills that will fortify your particular child through good times and bad. Childhood is not a race. It is, in the words of Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years. Sometimes magic happens in the blink of an eye, and sometimes you have to wait patiently for magic to reveal itself. Worry less about “a leg up” and pay attention more to your child’s willingness to be challenged and sense of comfort and confidence in himself or herself.

            •Take time to get to know your baby. Attunement, that is the accurate reading of an infant’s internal state (calm, anxious, uncomfortable), is tied to almost every positive cognitive, emotional and behavioral outcome for children. This can’t be rushed, and means that rather than worrying about performance, you are learning to recognize and delight in your particular child’s signals.

            • What interests your child, interests you. If I could make it through three boys with rats and mice and lizards, you can too. The world is a never-ending source of wonder and engagement. Don’t be dismissive of your child’s interests. Many of them are likely to change and you can’t possibly predict where their interests will lead them. One of my oldest son’s friends was preoccupied with odd plants throughout childhood. He now teaches at a prestigious university and is one of the country’s experts on ferns.

            • Let your child lead the way on coaching, select teams and lessons. Often there is no faster way to kill an interest than to insist that your child is so talented that lessons are necessary. “Your voice is beautiful. I think you should take lessons twice a week” is one reasonably predictable way to help your child lose interest. The singing that was a pleasure has now become one more “work” place. Most kids will ask for instruction when they want more.

            • Welcome mistakes. Not only are they inevitable but they also help your child develop competence and resilience. Yes, I wrote a New York Times best-selling book and, yes, the first draft really sucked. To get better at anything kids need to push themselves and that means making mistakes. Model a healthy way to deal with mistakes and feedback. “I really learned something today when my boss pointed
out . . . ” as opposed to “My boss is a jerk. I cried all afternoon after he picked apart my project.”

Remember that the best “leg up” you can give your children is to help them feel good about themselves, eager to test themselves out in the world and confident that there are loving, supportive and encouraging parents standing behind them.