Is Sleep the New Non-Negotiable?

Get off The Hamster Wheel

I was working with a client that was trying to figure out how he could get more work done instead of procrastinating and going down the YouTube & Facebook bunny trails. He finished each day feeling anxious and wrapped in guilt that he had not accomplished more.  Sound familiar?

Maybe you or your student have been on the hamster wheel to nowhere and can’t figure out how to get off. After peeling back the onion, what we realized was that he wasn’t getting enough sleep. We had to focus on how to wind down his day to setup a good night sleep before thinking about strategies to get his work done.

You have probably seen some of the latest research regarding sleep deprivation and the effects on the brain. Just one night of poor sleep can affect cognitive ability, mood, coordination, attention, decision making, among others. Absent enough rest, the brain functions at a much slower rate and we have trouble concentrating, thinking clearly, and become more emotional.

Have you ever noticed when you don’t get enough sleep, just finding your keys in the morning can be a struggle? Maybe your sleep deprived kids seem pricklier and more defiant (this also applies to adults.)

Sleep Washes Away The Bad, Cycles in the Good

Sleeping provides the brain with an opportunity to do a “rinse cycle” and get rid of all the toxins that have accumulated throughout the day. When you go to sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid increases significantly, washing away the harmful toxins and waste proteins that build up between the brain cells during waking hours. These toxins have been linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

Not only are you removing toxins, sleeping is also what enables your brain to consolidate and move information into long term memory. It is this process that then allows the brain to recall and use information to solve problems.  One study showed that teenagers receiving just 18 extra minutes of sleep improved their grades in math and English.  Even the great inventor Thomas Edison recognized the power of sleep to stimulate new thoughts and ideas.  He would put ball bearings in his hand, doze off and when they fell to the ground and the noise woke him up he was able to come up with new approaches. (p. 30-31 a Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D.) This explains why our greatest ideas often come to us during our morning shower!

Turn Screen Time Into Sleep Time

What is it that prevents us from getting enough sleep? Unless you have sleep apnea or some other medical explanation, I’ve got one word for you – screens!  Screens can include anything from browsing the internet, social media, video games, Netflix, and YouTube. The issue of endlessly pursuing electronic devices isn’t unique to our kids or millennials.  It does not discriminate by gender, age, or ethnicity. I too have fallen into this trap that takes away from my ability to do my best the following day.

While staring at screens during the day can be detrimental to our productivity and connection with actual human beings, it’s at night that it sets us up for disaster when it comes to sleep.  It is so easy to get sucked into staying up way past our bed time reading the news or catching up on facebook. The blue light emanating from our devices tricks your brain into thinking its daytime. This keeps it in a higher state of arousal and hyper focus similar to the effect of caffeine or even amphetamines. You might as well just drink a cup of coffee right before going to bed.

“So, am I ok if I just dial up the orange light on my device at night,” you might ask?  It’s not just the blue light that causes problems. When you are watching or interacting with a screen, you are increasing the release of certain chemicals into the brain, like dopamine, and stimulating natural reward pathways that feeds the need for additional gratification.   This is why it is so easy to say just 10 more minutes and then end up binge watching an entire season of Game of Thrones late into the night.

A Good Rule To Follow

In our household, there is a “no electronic devices in the bedroom” rule when it is time to go to bed for all of us.  Before implementing this rule, I struggled, looking at work emails after climbing into bed, which kept my mind racing well after turning off the light.  Now I pick up a book instead and I’m fast asleep in ten minutes. Our goal is screens off at least 30 minutes before bed. Are these evening habits always executed perfectly? Nope, we have good days and bad. But I do notice a huge difference in how the end of my day sets me up for the next.  I feel better, am more inclined to work out, go for walks, and am more patient with my kids when they are being knuckleheads.  Even they freely admit that they are wrecked the next day when they slip and sneak a peek at their devices before bed. Having one policy that applies to everyone reduces resistance and from the minions as we are modeling the behavior we expect from our kids. They love to point out any hypocrisy.  In this case, it’s hard to argue.

So how are you going to close out your day? What is your evening routine? Is it worth finding a way as a family to get an extra 18 minutes of sleep?

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Hide The Homework, and Other Great Tips for Getting Homework Done

Conventional wisdom has us believe that homework needs to be done at a desk in a quiet room in one sitting until finished.  Does it really?  Homework can be a daily struggle for many families, especially those with students that have trouble getting started and sustaining focus. Let’s face it, for most kids homework is a chore.  It’s boring and the executive function and self-regulation skills necessary to power through it are lagging in many kids (and adults for that matter; think about doing your own taxes).  Today’s temptations like video games and YouTube videos only make it harder for homework to compete for our student’s attention.  The good news is you can change all that by mixing up the routine and, believe it or not, making homework fun.

So, hide the homework!

That’s right, take a homework assignment and hide it somewhere in the house and then let them complete it in that location once they find it.  I wish I could take credit for the idea but I heard of it while listening to Leslie Josel from Order Out of Chaos.(Check out her website, she has some great products and webinars).  For example, put the math worksheet in the cupboard and once your student finds it, have her squeeze in between the pasta noodles and canned green beans to complete it.  Depending on the grade level, set a rough time limit for how long it should take. If they don’t finish, move to the next assignment which is hiding in the tub. The point is, the fun and excitement of a game of hide and seek reframes the experience and turns completing their homework into a reward for winning the game.  Creating a game or a challenge around an otherwise mundane task increases dopamine in the brain and activity in the frontal cortex where the process of getting things done lives.

“But,” you say, “my kid is too old to play hide the homework?” So then what? Ask them what they think would work. Where do they naturally work when doing something they like?  Does he like to spread everything out on the floor while laying on his stomach and kicking his feet? Is he more productive studying with friends at a library, tutoring center, or coffee shop? Or maybe he needs several homework locations throughout the house to move to when he starts to lose focus?  Some students may actually like the idea of a body double; sit in the same room with them working on your own thing while they do their work.  Movement, a change of scenery, and interaction with others while working stimulates blood flow to the brain and takes the monotony out of the task.

When my youngest was in 4th and 5th grade, we would ride our bikes to the playground with books and snacks in hand and work on an assignment. When that was complete we would bike to the next location. Sometimes he would take me on some wild rides, but we got the work done. With another middle school student, we would play quick games of connect four between homework problems. Not only did she get her homework done, but my money is on her against anyone in a game of connect four. If your teen has an upcoming test, shoot some hoops while you quiz them. One caveat however – your student will have to give you guidelines as to what you are to do if they get the wrong answer. Take your parent hat off and just be a facilitator.  The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. The moment we start to criticize as parents, it’s game over!

Supporting a creative or more active environment and getting more senses involved increases engagement, focus, and the retention of information. Kids are always complaining that they can’t see how they’ll ever use what they’re learning in school, so take real life scenarios and tie it to what they are studying so it’s more interesting and relatable. For example, to help my youngest son understand the benefits of math, we decided to apply the concepts he was learning to a business idea he had to create – selling human sized gummy bears. He had to figure out how much it would cost, come up with a sales price and calculate his margin. He then decided he wanted to hire salespeople and had to figure out how he was going to pay them. After running the numbers and how many life size gummy bears he’d have to sell to make money, he decided this wasn’t a good idea, but he had a newfound appreciation for math.

All of this probably sounds like a big commitment and a lot of time out of an already busy day but it doesn’t have to be.  The big investment is upfront, brainstorming ideas and a little bit of trial and error figuring out which ones will work for your student. From there, it’s about incorporating homework into the quality time you’re already spending together as a family.  And think about the time and energy saved avoiding the battles over getting homework done, missing assignments and poor performance in school.

At the end of the day, no matter the age or the grade, it needs to be a collaboration between you and your student. Brainstorm ideas and give them permission to say “no” to yours.  Even if their ideas are crazy, run with it. If they say “I want to do my homework on the moon” simply respond, “Ok, how will you do that?”  Let creativity reign and have fun coloring outside the lines while exploring all the different routes you can take from point A to point B.

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How You Can Help Texas Teachers and Students

According to the USA Today, over 200,000 Houston students and over one million in all of Texas will not be attending school on time. The scale of Hurricane Harvey has been so devastating that numbers alone don’t do it justice. But what incredible numbers they are. According to CNN, the storm has dumped over 10 trillion gallons of water over Texas. Tens of thousands are in need of temporary shelter. And upwards of half a million will need immediate federal disaster assistance.

Schools and students need your help.

The US and Texas Departments of Agriculture have already ensured Houston students will receive free meals this year. That certainly takes a burden off many families, and there are so many more ways Texas schools will need help going forward.

Here are some things to consider donating to help Texas schools get back to full functioning capacity.
Schools need clothes, shoes, and supplies, most of all. These urgent items can be sent to:

HISD Harvey Recovery
Delmar Stadium
2020 Mangum
Houston, TX 77092

You can also donate via a Harrison County Independent School District page.  

To help teachers in Texas rebuild classrooms, you can donate directly to a Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund. Over $600,000 has been raised so far. 

Another great oganization in Texas set up a campaign to help teachers rebuild their classroom. 

The National Education Association also has some resources to help you make donations to positively impact Texas schools. 

Teachers are going to be a huge healing agent in the coming weeks and months for Texas students, so its really important to give them the resources they’ll be needing. They’ll be working tirelessly to be sure students are safe and in a strong emotional place to turn the school year into a success.

Thanks for your concern in helping teachers and students in Texas get back to what they do best.


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8 Common Mistakes Students Make When Setting Goals, And Ways To Improve Them

It’s baaaaaaack. School, that is. There’s going to be a few moans about that, but honestly, how great is it to get back with your friends, your favorite teachers, and a solid, successful routine. And with classrooms opening already around Colorado, now’s a great time to start helping improve your child’s education through realistic goal-setting.

When engaging in goal-setting activities, keep in mind that students range from the overly ambitious to the easily overwhelmed and every shape and size in between. I’ve had students who were convinced they were going to Stanford in the fifth grade, and I’ve had students who couldn’t tie their shoes in middle school. So, it’s really important to be realistic and also it’s just as important to know what to be realistic about.

Creating unrealistic goals is one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen students make. With that in mind, here are eight goals that can be managed more effectively.

  • Mistake Setting the bar too high Students who want to impress their teacher, mom, or dad can become too ambitious, which while a noble characteristic can more often than not lead to disappointment. Also, it takes the joy from learning. The student I cited above who was convinced he was going to Stanford measured every score, activity, and assignment with this in mind. Anything less than an A+ led to tears. What teacher wouldn’t feel bad about this? Fortunately, we caught this early, and made learning more fun for him, which resulted in just what we thought: better marks!
  • Mistake Setting the bar too low Students who make goals thinking they aren’t good enough can just as easily get lost, bored, and disinterested. They end up falling behind socially, as well, and it becomes a lot of work for teachers and parents to build their confidence back up. Often, those of us who set the bar too low are high achievers in other creative areas that might not be taught in school. Presenting the student with areas to integrate creativity in their work can create a sea change in their motivation.
  • Mistake The goals are not rewarding enough Good goal-setting is incumbent on feeling rewarded when the goal is met. If the goal doesn’t provide meaningful rewards, then the progression is likely to plateau too quickly. When setting a goal with students, ask them how they’d like to be rewarded. They’ll definitely let you know. And don’t be afraid to assert your authority in working with them on rewards. For example, a long term goal like raising their math grade form a C to a B could result in everyone’s favorite – a new video game, but only if it involves high order thinking.
  • Mistake Taking on too many jobs You’ve heard of dress to impress. Well, lots of students say yes to impress. It’s good because they love to help out, but classroom helping is way more effective when the job is highly meaningful to the student and the class. Sure, it’s great to have a student secretary on hand, so when assigning this goal, be sure the student understands there’s more to it than meets the eye. Students love to pass out paper, but when we ran out, they also had to reorder it, reply to any correspondence with a vendor through a quick writing assignment I’d give them, and then be sure it was kept clean and in order. When you do it this way, one job branches out into several.
  • Mistake Not taking enough risks I could usually categorize my classes quite easily. There were the risk averse, and the overly risky. While both presented plenty of opportunities for growth, if I’d have to choose I’d definitely steer students to taking risks, to teach them how to grow. This doesn’t mean setting unrealistic goals, however. It simply means that students learn best just a little outside their comfort zone. That’s the perfect place to present challenges and promote growth.
  • Mistake Goals are too impersonal Goals should be as personal as possible. Commonly, students make this mistake by playing follow the leader. If a particular student makes a goal that works, it is rather easy to copy. After all, we all know what the sincerest form of flattery is. You see this all the time in fads, and learning has fads too. But, fads are only as good as the designer. Goals are our very own designs, and students need to be reminded of this.
  • Mistake Not giving yourself enough time This is arguably the most common mistake in goal setting and often the most frustrating. We all have a tendency to want to see results now!  A good way to overcome this is to be sure at least one goal is a long term goal. Fostering the work ethic gained in achieving long term gains teaches patience and persistence. I think we can all agree this is a really important skill set for a mobile generation of learners.
  • Mistake Not following through When a student reaches their goal, make sure to celebrate it. Then, be sure to build off of it. I taught one student who read all of the 20 classic books she had on her list in half the time she allotted. The class celebrated that by watching an adaptation of Great Expectations. The next day, we set a new goal. She said she wanted to watch more adaptations she loved them so much. Out of that, she grew an affinity for film. That’s how the best goals work. They build one on top of another.

Remember, the best way to set goals is to individualize them as best as you can. You can have all the aspirations in the world and still the single most important thing you can be is realistic. And realistically, the sky is truly them limit when handling goals correctly.

If you’d like The School Communications Agency to work with you in setting realistic goals, we’d love to help. Contact us for more.

Thanks so much!

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