“Toys” to Help Students Read

(Fifth in a Series on Tutoring)

When an occupational therapy student showed up at our tutoring site last year with three drawers full of stuff that looked like toys, and told me they would help students with their reading, I was skeptical.Kidsco Puffer Balls - 6 Pack Assorted Colors, Blue, Green, Orange, Yellow, Pink and Purple, for Kids Sensory Stress Relief, Therapy Toy Favor, Goody Bag Filler.

One drawer was labelled ‘calming’ the other ‘alerting’, and the other one had what looked like a big sock full of rice or beans or something.

The calming drawer was full of stress balls, squishy toys and colorful little things to fidget with. I took one look at it and imagined all that stuff flying through the air, books and reading abandonned to a free-for-all.

The alerting drawer looked even more problematic – gum that could end up stuck under tables, more distracting fidget toys, and a big inflated ‘wiggle seat’ with soft plastic spikes that I figured no self-respecting kid would be caught dead sitting on.Trideer Inflated Stability Wobble Cushion with Pump, Extra Thick Core Balance Disc, Kids Wiggle Seat, Sensory Cushion for Elementary School Chair (Office & Home & Classroom)

Turns out, I was dead wrong to be so cynical! We did have to be strict about not letting kids use the objects to play with, just to hold them while reading, but pretty soon I was hearing stories of how different gadgets were helping kids focus.

Then my nephew came over to my house and saw the wiggle seat, which I hadn’t even taken to the site yet, and said, “Oh those are really cool. We get to sit on them at reading time at school.” Get to – shows how much I don’t know!

The real clincher was the story I heard about a little girl at another site who had been unable to sit still at all. She was so distracted she had never completed a book during tutoring. Then her tutor got her a ‘weighted lap belt’ – the big stuffed sock I had mentally mocked on sight. Apparently the little girl sat calmly through her whole session, finished her book, held up the lap belt and announced joyfully, “This  makes me smart!”

So now I no longer mock the Whiz Kids Sensory Tool Kit. Our site has hyperactive kids squeezing squishy balls as they read, tired kids sucking mints and little kids using colored film strips to underline their words as they read. We even use the spiky cushion.

Last year, these kits were researched and put together by Jillian Cloud, OTD, OTR/L, as part of her doctoral program. Children can have a range of sensory processing issues that interfere with learning – trouble focusing to over-sensitivity to noise or touch.

The handbook that Jillian wrote for tutoring sites not only explains the best use of the tools, it also includes a long list of calming strategies, ideas for taking quick breaks, and suggestions for improving sensory processing.

A helpful chart, called “Zones of Regulation”, gives tutors a way to guide students to identify how they are feeling and what their level of alertness is. In the green zone, they are ready to learn – happy, calm and focued. In the blue zone they are sad, sick, tired or bored. In the yellow zone they are frustrated, worried, wiggly or excited and in the red zone kids are angry, scared, yelling, hitting or elated. Picking a zone helps kids see whether they need to do something to help get themselves under control.

When you only have an hour a week to make an impact on a student’s life, these little toys are making a big difference.

 

 

 

The Gift of Knowing Your Strengths

IMG_20170221_164716924(Fourth in a series on tutoring.)

Focusing on what is right about ourselves and the people we work with is key to both success and joy. This is a truth that runs deep, but cynical people like me think, “Right – I’m trying to work with a kid who’s cussing me out and running away from me and I’m supposed to concentrate on her bravery and zest?

Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t pull a consequence on her for cussing and running, but during and after the incident, I will employ my strengths to stay connected to this child and call out her strengths. This will keep me from quitting kid ministry!

The Mayerson Academy in Cincinnati, which trains and supports learning communities, has employed research findings in the field of positive psychology to give educators character strength curriculum all over the world. They use a 120 question inventory from the VIA Institute on Character to help us discover our character strengths. Click here to link to the survey.

Just knowing what we’re strong in can help us channel our efforts more successfully. Then we’re equipped also to teach kids their strengths and help them succeed. In a tutoring setting, we can teach character strengths as vocabulary words, we can discuss examples of them that we see in others, we can play games that put them into practice, we can tell our students when we see one in them. Relationships grow stronger in the process.

We also teach kids that they can change, so if a lack of strength is causing them a problem, (say in honesty or perseverance or kindness) they can work on it. The model does not say we are limited – it names twenty four character strengths, stressses that we have them all, and helps us focus on and use what we are already strong in, while knowing that we can grow in the other areas. If you’re operating in a Christian setting, you can also teach that we need God to help us with these changes, and God is always there to help us and work in us.

So, for example,  I call on my creativity, social intelligence and spirituality to hang in with my angry cussing and running little girl; I pray for her, figure out what’s setting her off and imagine what it would be like for her to give me a hug when all this is over.

Just to finish the story – I didn’t get the hug, but she did end up thanking me once, and I did manage to get her to cooperate with us by bribing her with snacks! Success is incremental, but leaning into strength instead of focusing on all that’s wrong is a really important discipline in any kind of helping work.

Love of Reading is Contagious

(Third in a series on tutoring.)

Some people are especially fond of books. I’m told that as a little kid I used to fall asleep with a Little Golden Book on my face many nights. But even people who are not naturally crazy about reading can be taught the value and joy of it through example.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve

The trick with tutoring is to be strict enough to get to work, but to make it fun enough that students associate reading with a good time.

Ideas for Teaching the Value of Reading:

  • Tell kids how important reading is, how every part of school will be easier once they know a lot of words and can read smoothly. Tell them you want them to become great readers, and learn as many words as possible.
  • Challenge them to make reading progress a goal. We use fluency tests in our lessons, and have kids plot on a graph how many correct words they read in one minute. It can be very encouraging for them to see their graphs go up as they improve in reading that passage from week to week. Progress should never be compared to other kids though – they just compete against their earlier scores. Kids who cannot read much yet can be timed for how many Dolch sight words they can remember – start with a pre-primer list: https://www.grps.org/images/departments/academics/pdfs/ela/dolch_alphabetized_by_grade.pdf
  • Tell kids stories of how much of a difference reading has made for you or someone you know. Tell them all the things you like to read. I like to tell a story of Ben Carson’s, from his book, “Gifted Hands” . The famous neurosurgeon grew up in poverty with a single mom who did not have much education, but she knew the value of reading. She made her boys read two library books a week, and he believes that had a great deal to do with his success in school.

Ideas for Making it Fun:

  • I know this is unenlightened, but we’re shameless about giving out candy rewards. I bring a big bowl of mixed varieties, and tell tutors to use it as incentive in any way they want. We give kids candy for memorizing verses, for hitting fluency goals, for finishing assignments – whatever it takes.
  • We let kids who finish their reading tasks for the session do something fun that is word-related, such as reading a picture book to them that they’re interested in, or doing a crossword puzzle or word search.
  • We give students lots of affirmation for any progress they make. This is really important. Find something to affirm, even if it’s only that the kid listened for a whole page without interrupting, or stayed in his seat for ten minutes. Look for positives and look for improvement and call it out every time. Many kids who struggle in school get more negative feedback than positive, and they need their hope and confidence rebuilt.
  • We invite families to three sessions a year, where we serve dinner, play some fun games, and tell parents and grandparents how well the students are doing. It means a great deal to a child that their tutor cares about and has talked with people in their family.

There is nothing better to see than a kid’s face light up when they have successfully read a book. It makes it all worthwhile!

The Lost Art of Reading Aloud

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-19,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve(Second in a series on tutoring.)

I was one of those really anxious kids who experienced the school day as a social and emotional cage fight. Relief did not come till the very end of the day, when my teacher read aloud to us.

For twenty glorious minutes, I escaped the noise, insults, girl drama, numbing repetition and ruthless competition, to slide into other glorious worlds, where chocolate factories were given to deserving orphans, and little girls slept in covered wagons on the open prairie, miles from any school.

As I was meeting with Tim Walker, the administrator at the school where we volunteer, to set up our tutoring program this year, he said, “Whatever else you do, just read aloud to them. They need to hear books read well. They need reading to be fun. Even if you don’t do anything else, just read to them.”

I didn’t know when I was listening, entranced, to James and the Giant Peach, that my vocabulary was being built, that grammar structures were being embedded in my brain, that my mind’s capacity to create visual images was growing and that I was developing increased capacity to focus and calm myself, but it was all happening nevertheless.  (For a research summary go to http://www.readingrockets.org/research/read-aloud.) Being read to by my mother and my early teachers made it easy for me to learn to read – I was devouring “Little Women” and heavy tomes about dinosaurs by the time I was seven.

So, for these and many other reasons, we start our tutoring time by reading aloud to children. We read as smoothly, thoughtfully and with as much expression as we can. We give them permission to interrupt us and ask us what words mean. We let them hold the books, turn the pages, and follow along the words with their fingers as we read, so their attention stays on the text and they effortlessly learn to spell.

With little children, we read most of the text to them, but stop every few sentences at a word they already know to let them read it out loud.

Reading out loud serves as a good way to start the session, modelling the process and giving the child an overview of the material. It is also a great incentive to hold over kids who may be tired or unfocused – promise to read them something they are interested in if they finish their work before the end of the session.

A recent survey (http://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/reading-aloud.htm) revealed that while 62% of parents of three to five year-olds read to them often, that number has dropped to 38% for six to eight year-olds, and to only 17% for nine to eleven year-olds. But older kids still love to be read to! It is one of the most pleasant and helpful things we can do for a child, and we get to enjoy the story too!

How to be a Great Tutor

This series on how to tutor is written for people involved in City Gospel Mission’s Whiz Kids program in Cincinnati, but the principles apply in many different situations, especially where people are being taught to read. In this first post, we’ll look at the importance of establishing a relationship before diving into teaching:

Most people need to be listened to, especially children and youth. They may not want to read, or to learn at all, but if we listen to them well, and are prepared to tell them about ourselves too, that begins a relationship. And once we’re in a relationship with a child, they will often work with us even if they’re not all that motivated, simply because they trust us and know we care about them.

So relationship is always the place to start. When our tutoring site begins a new school year, we start with a handout full of non-threatening questions, such as:

What do you like to do when you get home from school?

What are your favorite games?

What are your favorite TV shows?

Where would you like to travel?

What reward do you like best for good work?

If you had $50 what would you buy?

irst, the tutor interviews the student, and writes down their answers in spaces after the questions. Then students are guided to ask tutors the questions and write their answers. This gives you an idea of the new student’s reading and writing level, as well as helping you get to know them. With kids under third grade, and even with some older kids, you’ll have to help them a lot when it’s their turn for reading the questions and writing the answers.

If your child comes from a tough or complicated family background or has experienced a recent trauma, they may not want to answer questions about family. Be sensitive about that and don’t push. Also avoid questions that assume a nuclear family, like, “Do you live with your mom and dad?” or “Do you have contact with your dad?” or “Why do you live with your grandma?” Keep questions open ended, like “Who do you live with?” As you get to know children better, they may want to disclose more about their families, but often they need time to build trust first.

It’s also important to do fun things with kids. Some kids would rather do stuff than talk at all, in which case you don’t try for too much discussion, you find things to do. After we have the question time in our first session, we give the children bags to hold their tutoring supplies, and let them decorate them with permanent markers and stick-on decorations.

Only after connecting in these two different ways do tutors begin to talk about what sessions will be like, and what the rules and expectations are for the time.

Sessions after that are focused on reading, but tutors always begin by asking kids how their weeks have been and how they are doing in school. A quick fun game precedes the tutoring session, and tutors finish by praying with kids about their needs and concerns.

Sandwiching tutoring with a focus on relationships makes the whole experience better for everyone and improves outcomes. Tutors and kids look forward to seeing each other and there’s great potential for tutors to become role models and mentors as well as reading coaches.

Free Urban Children’s Ministry Booklet

(Click here for a free copy of “10 Ways to Reach Out to Urban Kids”)

Sifting through posts on a blog site can be tricky, so I’ve added a “Free Stuff” tab to this site, where I’m posting collections of ten blogs written on the same theme, as well as other resources. All this material is there to help individuals, families, and churches connect with God personally and share his love with other people.

The collection linked to this post covers the ways my church, College Hill Presbyterian, has reached out to the kids in our neighborhood as well as our faith community – sometimes a challenging combination. But always the right thing to do. Click on the link above for a booklet of outreach ideas, as well as some hard-won wisdom on how to conduct ministry with kids from different backgrounds, including those with behavior challenges and those with no familiarity with Christian culture.

A Half-Day Retreat to Spiritually Recharge

(With a free booklet on prayer and meditation for beginners)

The summer interns at our church have really appreciated the retreats we’ve structured for them over the past few years. These high school and college students come from all over the region to work with children and youth in our urban neighborhood – they’re camp counselors, youth group leaders, Sunday School teachers, swim instructors and spiritual mentors. It’s wonderful, exhausting work.

We wanted part of their training to include time alone with God, so they would learn that the power comes from Him, and we only have to give what we have experienced with God. We schedule three or four half day retreats over the summer, and try to do them in a beautiful, natural setting.

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Here’s how we structure it:

  • For the first hour we stay together, checking in about how each person is doing (I ask them to rate themselves out of ten on energy levels, stress levels, happiness levels). We stress listening deeply to each other. Then I read a brief Bible passage three times, asking them to listen first for content, then to experience it with all their senses, imagining themselves in the scene, then to pay attention to what stands out to them – what God may be speaking to them through the passage. This excercise calms and centers people, and they can keep focusing on that passage, if they want, in their alone time. Then I pray for protection, peace and guidance for them in their time alone.img_20170605_160429434.jpg
  • For the next two hours, everyone disperses alone, not talking to one another. They choose whether to stay in one place or walk around, and are given guidance in how to use the time. I encourage them to keep gently bringing their minds back to the here and now, and the reality that Jesus is with them. They may read the Bible or another book, memorize a few verses, or rest in the beauty of nature. We encourage them to stay off their phones. To help them, we give them a booklet of ten short articles on how to spend time with God – everything from dealing with silence to confession to healing to surrender to gratitude to Bible study (compiled from blogs on this site). Download this here. IMG_20160629_134707716
  • For the last hour, we meet together again and check in about how that time went for us. Some will describe a spiritual experience, some will share difficulties they may have had – trouble concentrating, falling asleep, grief overtaking them. Some of the interns are not comfortable being outside for long and get freaked out by bugs! But usually they report a good, refreshing time. We end up praying in groups of three or four for anything that surfaced during the time alone, and for ministry coming up.

It’s a good idea to have a few people available during the alone time in case people get stuck trying to connect with God alone, and need someone to talk with them or pray for  them. I think any group of people in Christian ministry should regularly have retreats. Jesus did it; so should we.