Review by Julie Hannan

With so many resources available on the internet, it is easy to become overwhelmed with information. is one of my favorite go-to websites for current research and ideas about education, learning, and parenting. Furthermore, the Understood newsletter provides me with relevant food-for-thought in an easy to read format. I always learn something new and appreciate the amount and depth of understandable resources available in one place. When you visit for the first time, give yourself time to get lost in exploration or use the search bar to dive into a specific topic. Happy Learning!

Sparks of Learning Success

2019 seemed to zip by, but upon review, the year was full of action as well as reflection for me as a business owner. I would have to say that one of my biggest accomplishments was working with my lovely, insightful coach Erica. Through a nine-month process, I worked on creating and verbalizing a clear vision for the work we do at Sparkle Spot Learning.

Because I enjoy variety and like to say yes to people who ask for help, what we were doing at SSL felt like it was becoming a bit confusing to me as an educator and leader. People were calling, and I was doing my best to keep up. I needed more people to help me but did not know exactly how to find the right people and then how to lead those people to recreate my vision and unspoken way of doing things.
A big important piece of clarifying what Sparkle Spot Learning is about was creating a mission statement and vision. During this process, we also created what I call the SPARKS of Learning Success. This acronym captured the most important parts of what I strive to create for students and families at SSL.
S: Social-Emotional Learning
P: Participation
A: Academic Understanding
R: Research and Responsiveness
K: Kindness is our Culture
Essentially, these five SPARKS are the foundation of our work at SSL. We are working to create a place where the social and emotional needs of kids are recognized and addressed. We cannot begin to teach academic skills until children are willing to trust themselves, take risks, and participate in their own learning. We strive to not just teach a curriculum or meet benchmarks, but to build academic understanding that can be generalized to school and beyond. We want children to be able to bring what they don’t understand and be open to us helping them truly comprehend the concept. And, while we pride ourselves on being responsive to children and their learning profile, we also continue to learn, and use researched based practices with our students. As teachers who understand how brains learn, we know that it is important to be both systematic and data driven as well as responsive to the individual child. Finally, Sparkle Spot Learning has a culture of inclusion, empathy, and kindness. We want kids and families to feel warmth and a sense of community when they come to our space. Although our individual Learning Specialists have a variety of interests and skills, we share a desire and commitment to find the sparks of learning success in each child.

Transitioning Back to School

Each year, the last week of August feels the same. During the day, it feels like summer and all is right. My summer has usually produced happy memories of family togetherness as well as a slower pace and laziness that only happens during this one special season. But come early evening, during that last week of August, there is a coolness in the air, along with longer shadows on the deck, and an earlier setting of the sun. And I know, deep down in my gut, that Fall is tiptoeing, a little too quickly, into my life. I am aware of parents and children picking out shiny new lunchboxes, and schools buzzing with activity as teachers prepare for the new year. This is the feeling I experience during Back-to-School season.

For me, the anticipation of the new school year has always produced feelings of mixed emotion. While I look forward to the routine of the school year, and the freshness of the growth to come, I also feel an uneasiness about all the newness that is about to begin. After many years, I have acknowledged that the driver of my late August restlessness is the transition into the unknown; unknown teachers, unknown schedules, unknown friends. I do not do well with the unknown.

Even though my children are mostly grown, I still experience this Back-to-School angst. I have learned to lean into my feelings of discomfort with lots of self-care; exercise, being with people, having things to keep me busy, along with purposeful positive self-talk about the normalcy and temporary state of my emotions.

For many kids and parents, the new school year produces feelings of both hope and stress. During this time of transition, begin to think about creating a September routine that eases your family into a new routine. Thinking purposefully about a few family routines can make the month of September a bit smoother.

  1. Downtime

Kids are using a tremendous amount of social energy and attention during the first weeks of school. If you have ever had a new job, you know how much energy it takes to meet new people and learn new routines. Your child is learning a new set of expectations and hidden rules, rules that you are just supposed to know because now you are in the -fill in any- grade. Most children are doing their best to connect with the new people in their lives.

To prevent at home meltdowns, build in time for your child to replenish their social energy. Avoid the desire to ask a continuous stream of questions, but rather connect over low key activities your child enjoys. Play a game or take a walk. This may mean allowing your child to take a social break rather than scheduling playdates. Notice how your child is coping with the school year schedule and adjust your child’s activities and social life accordingly.

  1. Homework

Getting back into a homework routine can be challenging. During the first weeks of school, build in time for that return to homework by purposefully thinking about the when and where homework will take place. Start the year by not saving homework for the last minute. If you are able, support your child by sitting at the table, either helping your child or doing your own “homework”. Have some tea or a snack together. Do your best to respond to your child’s feelings without getting frustrated or creating a power struggle. Being clear in your expectations and responsive to your child’s feelings and input is the key to building a successful routine.

  1. Meal Planning

This was always my personal struggle! During September, I encourage you to think about how to create a routine for breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners. (No wonder this was so hard for me!) Although I do not have any magic answers to this daily struggle, I know that providing meals takes thought and planning. Build in that time for planning and preparation, and if possible, allow your children to participate in the process. Children benefit from having family responsibilities and choices involving mealtime. Fall is a great time to begin these new positive routines. Also, think about providing a well-liked, protein rich snack for your child at pick-up. Afterschool is often a time of “hangry” release following a day of keeping emotions in check at school.

  1. Bedtime Routines

Summer is literally and figuratively light. As parents, many of us choose to let our children stay up later during the summer which can lighten the struggle of bedtime routines. Now that school is about to begin, getting enough sleep often involves earlier bedtimes. With elementary schools beginning earlier than ever before, it can be challenging to get our kids to bed at night. Bedtime routines require purposeful planning for parents.

Like many of the routines parents create for their children, allowing an ample amount of time to get kids from full activity to sleep requires planning. Start by thinking about the optimal sleep your child needs to function at his or her best. Then, work backwards from the time your child needs to be at school. How much time does the morning routine take? What time does your child need to get up to be at school on time? Then work backwards to figure out the time your child should ideally be asleep. Finally, think about how long it takes your child to wind down and what needs to happen for him or her to fall asleep. If you think this is a lot of work, I agree!  I acknowledge that this amount of thought about something so simple can feel overwhelming, but I also know that paying attention to bedtime can lead to positive outcomes for families.

As your child heads back to school, enjoy the freshness that Fall allows. Appreciate the big yellow school busses, fresh haircuts, new shoes, and back-to-school photos on social media. And, also know that even though it may look like all the other families are holding things together, September can be a significant transition for kids and families. Figure out how to simplify your life and create purposeful routines that allow you and your children to thrive.

Wise Minded Parenting by Laura Kastner

Review by Julie Hannan

Parenting is complicated! I love reading Laura Kastner’s books because she really seems to understand that parenting situations can send even the most competent parents into a state of outrage, exhausted disgust, or extreme frustration. This book is a straightforward guide, coaching parents in strategies to keep cool and make purposeful decisions, even in the most outrageous parenting dilemmas. The extremely meaty book is full of real-life scenarios, possible conversations, essential activities, and wise-minded mantras; all  sprinkled throughout the relevant text. Finally, the seven chapter book includes two of my favorite topics: self-control and emotional flourishing. For parents of tweens and teens (which every child will eventually become), this book is a must have!

Reading Hope

All readers in a family are not the same… After a successful first grade reading launch with my oldest daughter, I vividly remember the painful struggle of my middle daughter’s twenty

My sparkly daughter Claire!

minutes of daily reading. By second grade, she was a master of avoidance, coming up with creative new ways to avert and prolong the challenging task. At the time, daily reading was a consistently frustrating parenting task. In hindsight, I now understand that processing the letters, words, and sentences on the page was just so hard for my joyful, smart, articulate seven year-old. The struggle was not her fault, just her reading challenge.

In early childhood, language literacy may be the most important skill a child practices. By the time children reach school age, it is expected that youngsters are ready to begin reading and writing. There is a difference, however, between receptive and expressive language, and the task of decoding abstract symbols into their appointed sounds. Most children need some explicit instruction to break the code of phonics, a key component to reading and spelling. In school, that instruction begins early and is built upon throughout elementary school. If a child is not developmentally ready to learn the skills being taught, or if a child is not picking up the information delivered to the whole group, he or she may begin to fall behind in the ability to process the classroom instruction. It is not uncommon for some individuals, like my daughter Claire, to need explicit individual or small group instruction. Claire, like many children, needed an opportunity for repetition in her learning, along with meaningful purposeful practice.

Early intervention has been shown to improve reading and self-esteem outcomes in children struggling to read proficiently. Using specific assessments to understand a child’s learning profile is the key to addressing gaps in understanding and skills. For certain individuals, reading and spelling acquisition is not picked up through experience or intuition, but rather through a progression of skills delivered in a systematic, multi-sensory format. In other words, reading and spelling takes more time on task and effort for some children than others. Further, it is quite common for smart, verbal children to struggle with the fussy task of reading.

If your child is struggling to meet the reading and literacy expectations placed upon them by our school system, please know that they (and you) are not alone. While it is still true that all children develop skills at different rates and ages, the benchmarks being used today are fairly rigid. Although nearly all early childhood educators understand that not all children develop at the same age or learn in the same way, the pressure of standards in education is felt by a majority of early elementary school teachers. This means that even though we, as teachers, know it is not developmentally possible for all of our kindergartners to learn the same number of words in a year, teachers and parents are being asked to strive for the named goal.

If you are concerned about your child’s pace of reading development, there is support available. In this age assessment, teachers and school staff often have systems for early reading support. There is strong research about what children who struggle with reading need in order to develop the necessary skills to become proficient readers. That said, schools often struggle to serve certain children. If you feel your child is not getting what they need at school, outside help is available. When choosing a program to support your child, check to make sure the program is using research-based methodology. The progression of skills being taught, as well as how the instruction is delivered are important to the quality of the program, and ultimately, how the pace of sustainable growth is measured.

Having taught children who struggled with reading, spelling, and writing for many years, I have had the privilege of watching those children grow into competent readers, spellers, and writers. More importantly, I have watched those amazing children who worked so hard to learn how to read, grow into outstanding adults who have much to contribute to their communities and professions. Looking back on those second grade evenings of reading homework, I never would have guessed that my daughter Claire would choose a career as a special education teacher to middle-schoolers who struggle with reading. Claire gives me great hope!