Transitioning Your Child to Middle School

Katie-Pennington-Transitioning-to--Middle-School

As a high school principal with young kids, it’s a nice change to be with a different age group when I come home from work. Although what’s shocking to me is that my oldest son is going to be entering middle school next year! In the blink of an eye, my son will soon be a teenager, just like the kids who I work alongside with every day. You would think that as a high school principal, this transition would be easy for me since I somewhat serve as a guide to hundreds of teenagers. But it’s actually far from that.

You can tell I’m not taking this as well as you would think. So I turned to Google for help to cope with this change in my life. The tips I found were so relatable that I felt like I should write about this on my blog to help other parents like me experiencing this shock.

They Might Want to Get Involved with Extracurricular Activities

Elementary schools often don’t have extra-curricular activities like the school baseball or softball teams. However, middle schools do and this is new territory for parents and kids. Usually your child would catch the bus home after school or your would stay at an after-school program until you could pick them up after work. But extracurricular activities may keep your child after school long after the busses have left for the day. Talk to your child to see if they’re interested to participate in any activities. Chances are they might, and that opens up a whole new topic: ownership of a cell phone to stay in contact with your kids.

Cell Phones

These days it’s common for kids to have a cell phone at this age. Did you know the average age for a child to get a cell phone is 10? And it’s with good reason. Some parents work late, kids stay after school for activities and some going to friend’s houses after school. With your child hopping from place to place, parents still want to keep in contact with their kids.

Children’s cell phone ownership can be tricky, especially if they have a smartphone. It’s like they have access a world you can’t see in their pocket! As a parent, make sure you talk to your child about the proper use of a smartphone and use parental controls. I have some more guidance tips on a past blog I wrote here.

Help Them Adjust

Some elementary schools structure their schedule to have students switch teachers and classrooms throughout the day to help them adjust to middle school. Others do not, and children are stationary in one room all day. Middle school will be a significant change, as students hop from classroom to classroom and they won’t get to know their teachers and peers as well.

Your child will have to learn to self-regulate themselves to get to class. Talk to your child to see if they know where the lunchroom is, where the classrooms are, and how to effectively stop at their locker to switch out materials before the next class begins. Your child will also have to push themselves to make friends, since it might not be as easy as it was in elementary school where almost everyone class was their friend. Reassure your child that everyone his age will be new and everyone is going through the changes too.

Keeping Kids Occupied With Tech: The Right Way

Katie-Pennington-Kids-Technology

It’s hard for kids to stay occupied during the winter. Being stuck inside during a snowstorm is rarely fun for anyone, especially bored kids! In my home state of Michigan, snow is unavoidable and is often the reason why kids don’t want to venture outside. Of course, they would rather hold an iPad in front of the fire instead of freezing their toes off sledding.

I love technology and I embrace the endless possibilities it brings to the classroom. However, we must be mindful about how children use technology. Although it can enhance their communication and hand-eye-coordination skills, it may inhibit other skills. Here are a few ways to implement proper technology use with the kids.

Determine What Needs to Come Before the Technology

Screen time is a privilege, so you must establish your child’s responsibilities beforehand. Let your child know what needs to be accomplished to earn screen time. If you have a young child, something as simple as putting their toys away can help them learn about responsibilities. If your kids are older, having them make the bed or dust the furniture can help as well. Both ways will establish technology as a reward for finishing chores, not something that gets taken away if the chores aren’t done.

In addition, you may want to implement technology-free family time for everyone. You can set aside time each day for no texting, internet surfing, social media checking or email sending to talk about how everyone’s day went. You can also plan a technology-free evening such as a game night or a walk in the park.

Set Time Limits

Too much exposure to a screen isn’t good for anyone, especially young children. According to Psychology Today, too much exposure to electronic media leads to delayed cognitive development in young children. Although technology can do wonders for your child’s education, it’s wise to set a time limit. This can vary depending on their age and self-management level. A recent report from CNN provides some guidelines about how to limit media use for young children.

However, the guidelines for older children and teenagers vary depending on the child and the parent. You can factor in how much sleep they should be getting, their homework load and their maturity level. If your child can self-regulate the technology use on their own, you can give them more flexibility. If you believe your child doesn’t have the self-discipline to regulate use, you may need to step in.

Use Controls

Some video game consoles and smartphones have parental controls built in. These can allow you to restrict internet access, restrict the ability to make purchases and restrict downloads of games with mature ratings. Some devices can be programmed to shut down after they have been powered on for a certain time period.

Technology is a wonderful, but challenging tool. The world is changing so quickly, and therefore it may be hard to accommodate our parenting skills to keep up. We didn’t have all this technology when we were growing up! But I can assure you these tips can help you navigate the complicated mix of parenting and technology.

Surviving Cold Season: Here’s How You Can Keep Your Family Healthy All Winter Long

How To Survive Cold Season

Cold season has officially arrived. How do I know? To start, I have two children who attend public school. Whether they’re infected with a case of the sniffles or they’re telling me about the latest virus to hit their class; as a parent, cold season is no picnic. And to add fuel to the fire, it’s not just my kids who spend their days in school. As a high school principal, it’s clear: viruses hit early and often.

No surprise here–one of my top goals as a parent is to keep my family healthy all season long. While we’re all affected by some small bug or cold eventually, I’m a firm believer that the right preventative care can go a long way to warding off the common cold. Take a look at my list. For our family, these rules are an absolute necessity.

The Parent/Educator’s Guide to Staying Healthy:

Prioritize Sleep


Nothing is more important than adequate rest. This goes for my children, for me, my husband. Nobody in the family gets to bend the rules of rest consistently. Consider the important processes that happen when we take 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Our brains recharge. Our bodies refuel. We rise ready to tackle all of the cognitive, physical, and emotional tasks of the day.

Like most healthy habits, teaching our children the value of sleep is an essential part of the process. Be a model for them and you all will benefit from this important habit.

Say No to Easy Fixes


I’m talking about fast food, candy as a tide-over, the sugar pacifier, too much TV. We all have busy lives but building healthy habits into our lives is essential to our health. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional fast food dinner or allowing our children to enjoy screen time. What’s most important is that we’re consciously evaluating the way we fill our days and evenings.

Try Really Hard with Nutrition


This one’s a hard one. It’s hard because if both parents (or just you) are working, it’s hard to come home and whip up dinner after a long day. You might have more work to complete. Housework is no doubt piling up. Try where you can to squeeze in those extra healthy meals to make up for nights where mac and cheese is the obvious and welcome answer. A few ideas? Weekend meal preps. Delivery food boxes. Enlisting the help of a family member or even hiring somebody to help with your meals.

Hike, Bike, and Play As Often As Possible

Sleep. Healthy food. Fresh air. I consider these the foundational elements of a healthy immune system. It’s why I push my kids out the door on warm days and am out on the sidelines on game nights. If activity is hard to fit into your weekly schedules, consider adopting weekend traditions. Go out for a family hike. Take a bike ride.

Swoop in When in Counts

No matter how well you prepare for the eventual cold, they will strike. And when they do, you’ll want to be on the ready to swoop in to help curb its lifetime. What’s the best way to do this? Extra sleep, extra veggies, extra water.

What are your go-to tricks for helping your family stay healthy during the colder seasons? Send your ideas my way!

Katie Pennington is the Principal of Holland Schools in Michigan. As a leader in the ed-tech field, Katie’s always on the lookout for bringing innovative ideas into the classroom.

Busy Mom Secrets: 8 Ideas for a Spooky & Safe Halloween

Busy Mom Secrets: 8 Ideas for a Spooky & Safe Halloween

One of the constant battles of working full time as a parent is missing out on the small moments that make up each day. Holidays have a way of enlarging these small moments, leaving parents to feel inadequate. What do I mean by small moments? You might miss out on the costume party at school. Chances are, you won’t be able to cross off all the items on your family’s fall bucket list. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sneak in the best parts of the holiday when it counts.

Take it from me–a working mom who loves both of her jobs, it is possible. All it takes is the right mindset and a willingness to let the perfectionist in you slip away.

Halloween is right around the corner. While this list may differ for you and your family, the strategy behind the list can remain the same. Choose the activities that your family loves the most. Focus on quality time. And above all, have fun! I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t matter what activity your family decides to do; what matters is the memories, the love, and the laughter that is shared during that time together.

Here’s my list. It’s spooky, it’s fun, and it allows me to celebrate this festive holiday with my family without making crazy sacrifices!

  1. Decorate the House

What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than digging out the spooky decorations and letting your kids help you transform your house into a ghoulish destination? I love this activity because the memory extends far beyond the time it takes us to hang a few cobwebs and stick on the pumpkin adhesive. Each day leading up to Halloween, you and your family will wake up to a house that screams “Halloween!”

  1. Pick Your Pumpkin Poison

Each family has their own traditions when it comes to pumpkins. Choose your mark and stick to it! While it may seem ideal to tackle all of the projects: picking, carving, painting, roasting, etc., it may not be realistic! Remember, as the parent, you’re the guide. Set the rules, prepare the supplies, and let your kids go wild.

  1. Trick Your Senses

I love a cozy house. And there’s nothing cozier than an apple pie baking in the oven. Unfortunately, pie baking days are rare. But that doesn’t mean you can’t invoke the same sort of feel in your home! My go-to cozy trick? Heat 2-3 tablespoons of cinnamon and 1 cup water in a small pot on the stove. Before you know it, your home will smell like the warmth of the season. This is a great way to add that cozy character while your kids are doing homework in the evening.

  1. Hold Fast on Trick or Treat Traditions

If you’re like my family, you’ve adopted certain traditions when it comes to the actual night of trick or treating. Hold fast to these events! These will be the memories that your children remember! Maybe you pose outside on the porch each year. Maybe you visit that one neighborhood that always hands out the best candy bars. If you’re brave, you might even enact a free-for-all candy buffet that night (Just kidding, no parent is that brave.)

The point is, your traditions are special. Make new ones. Keep the old. Your family’s foundation is being built on these very same events.

3 Ways to Succeed at Family Meal Time

3 Ways to Succeed at Family Dinner

The start of the school year means a shift in the way you family operates on a daily basis. One of the first things that may fall off the wagon once September hits, is your evening meals together as a family. We’re all aware of the benefits of this time together. It strengthens the family unit. It’s correlated with higher GPA’s, lower risks of depression, and may even boost your toddler’s vocabulary more than reading aloud.

That all sounds great, but it’s still difficult to make it happen! With jobs, after school activities, sports, the logistics of the evening hours can be challenging to control. Here are a few ideas to help you make more of your evenings dedicated to this important event.

Don’t Set Yourself Up For Failure

The first rule of thumb when starting a new habit is to not bite off more than you can chew. All puns aside, don’t set yourself up for failure by mandating that your entire family must be seated at the table at 6pm each evening. That doesn’t sound fun or reasonable! Instead, start with finding a few nights a week where calendars align. Then, make the most of these nights together. Over time, you can hope to increase the frequency. But by starting small, you’ll be able to succeed in your goal, giving you the boost you need to continue on with the habit.

Dinner of steak and potatoes

Get Creative

If dinner time just won’t work for your family, why not change the hour of the day you spend together. Mornings may seem hard, but even spending 15 minutes together at the table while you eat your breakfast can change the course of your day in a positive way.

You could also consider taking the dinner in shifts. You may have a child running out the door while another one is returning home. Think of your kitchen having ‘open hours’. Keep meals simple–a crockpot is great–that will allow for multiple eating times. Strive to eat with somebody at each meal. You may not be able to all gather for the meal; but eating with at least one other person in your family will certainly work.

Find Shortcuts

Is the hardest part of dinner making it? If you’re like me, there are days after work that I don’t feel like cooking, eating, cleaning up. The process can seem so daunting that it scares people away! Don’t let it. Figure out what part of the process is hardest for you. Hate to plan and shop for meals? Consider getting a weekly food box delivered. Can’t seem to muster the energy to cook after a long day? Fire up that crockpot before work. Hate doing dishes? Assign the task to a person who’s not doing the cooking!

With the right mindset and a large dose of creativity, you can find ways to make family meals a tradition in your home. Stay positive. Cook and enjoy the foods you love.

What are your best secrets on dining together as a family? Send them my way!

Plate with fish

3 French Parenting Tips All Parents Should Borrow

We may idolize french culture for their fashion and their food, but what about their parenting style? French parenting, while not so dissimilar from their Western counterparts, does prioritize the growth of a child. From a young age, the child is treated more as an adult, a trend that emphasizes the idea that as a society, we should be raising adults, not children. As a parent and educator, I find myself agreeing on multiple tenets of this philosophy. Best of all, the French style of wellness benefits not only your children, but you, too.

While it may not be possible to fully subscribe to the French style, these three tips are a great place to start!

Child at daybreak

  1. Make Mealtime Count  

It’s no secret that the french people are masters at maintaining a healthy weight. The secret to their trim physiques? Proper portion control. For many living in France, the cuisine is an important part of the day. Enjoying a well-crafted dinner is a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Additionally, children living in France benefit from superior school lunches. While these lunches feature baguettes, cheese, and dessert, they all arrive in perfectly petite portions.

Your Turn: Practice intentional eating during your family’s dinner. While your children may not be used to eating meals that focus on vegetables, you’ll be doing you and your family a favor by committing to nutrition! If you’re tempted to make additional meals or exceptions for your kids, consider that the French parent would treat their child as an adult. Encourage them to take a few bites to develop their palate. And don’t forget about school lunches! When possible, take inspiration from these traditional French school lunches. Real food wins!

Eating a healthy dinner

  1. Get Active

Besides taking the time to eat a balanced meal, frequent movement is also an essential part of French culture. Children are expected to walk or bike to school. Additionally, starting a young age, children take frequent walks during school and at home.

Your Turn: If possible, encourage your children to walk or ride bike at school. And, when they return home from school, practice sending them right outside to play. Spending time outdoors can empower kids to explore a new world on their own.

 

  1. Define Your Role as Parent and Person

To raise a child in the French style means not sacrificing who you are for the role. French parents carve time to act like an adult. Evenings, in particular, are designated as ‘Adult Time’. Children are welcome to join in these quiet moments, where adults may be talking, drinking tea, or socializing with friends. Chances are, the children will find more entertaining ways to pass the time.

Your Turn: You may feel that you’re not able to turn off your parenting hat each night, but what about taking baby steps to limit your parent-role all the time. Invite a few friends over for dinner one weekend. Talk about what the evening will entail with your kids and invite them to find ways to play by themselves. Clearly, this strategy will only work for children who are able to care for themselves! But don’t shy away from giving older siblings more responsibility, especially while you’re still there in the home in case of any emergencies.
What are your thoughts? Do you credit a certain style of parenting as your go-to?

Children playing outside

Summer School: Sneaky Ways to Educate Your Kids

Summer is a wonderful tradition that kids look forward to all year long. But with weeks of unfettered time on their hands, summer can also mean gaps in learning and memory loss on recently mastered skills. As a parent and a school administrator, I’ve developed many tricks over the years to keep the learning going–often in non-traditional way. For me, instilling a love of learning to my children–and all children–is as important as the material itself.

What are a few ways you can continue to educate your kids over the summer months?

  1. Reading, Reading, Reading

Make it a habit for visit your local library weekly. Stock up on books and mandate a reading time each day. This might include you reading to your kids or scheduling independent time. Reading is one of the best ways to prevent summer slide and to further empower your kids to explore new worlds inside books. While forcing kids to read is never a good idea, try and help them find subjects or series that can act as a gateway. 

Photo of books

  1. Adopt Verbal Games

Playing games when traveling or cooking dinner can be a great way to continue cognitive learning over the summer. A few of my favorites?

-I’m Going to the Moon

Wordy Gurdy

-Contact

-20 Questions

  1.  Check Local Camps and Programs

Keeping your kids on a schedule can help ward off summer slide. Check your local school and park community to see what offerings are available for your kids. Week-long camps can be a fun way to keep the learning going while giving you kids an extra opportunity to see or meet new friends. Many of these camps run from week-to-week, which means you won’t feel guilty sending your kids to camp all summer long.

 

two-caucasian-and-two-african-american-children-playing-together-725x483

  1. Explore Nature Weekly

If you’re lucky enough to live near a natural park or hiking area, this can be a great place to take your kids on a regular basis. Spending time outside can be a great stress relief for both you and your kids. Take an afternoon off from screens and all things digital and let your curiosity run wild. You’ll get in a great workout and be able to play scientist–can you identify that tree, bird, flower?

 

  1. Enlist Technology

Today, there are hundreds of apps and games designed to keep your children up to speed on language, critical thinking, math, and science skills. While utilizing these can be a fun and interactive way to keep learning a priority, you can also dig deeper in the tech world. Consider teaching your kids to code or help them design and write for a personal website or blog. You’ll learn new skills in the process!

Laptop for blog page

Finding Better Ways to Play

As a parent, it’s hard not to worry about the psychology of toys and what message we’re sending to our children. Walk into any toy store and you’ll find two departments; one for girls, the other for boys. The aisles couldn’t be more different. As a society, we’ve become obsessed with creating distinct toys for each gender. But are these toys instinctively preferred by our children? Or are we creating a feedback loop by providing toys that we think they should prefer?

Stereotypes are extremely difficult to change after they’ve been put in place. And once we start providing culturally different toys for children based on their gender, they begin to associate those toys with themselves and what they should prefer. While many may not see the harm in providing different toys for boys and girls, the practice often leads to much larger consequences later in life.

Skul in school

Take the Lego company. For years, the company manufactured and produced toys exclusively for boys. The scenes are built around adventure, fighting, and action heroes. The Lego people are primarily men.

When Lego realized the untapped market for young female builders, they shifted their strategy, and their product, to better market to the demographic. Within a few years, the company pumped out pink and purple blocks featuring Disney Princesses, riding horses, going to school. While there is nothing innately wrong with this design, it’s become a fundamentally different product than the traditional sets.

In essence, Lego created a larger environment for girls (think doll-house or PollyPocket) while decreasing the building potential and perhaps even the complexity of the sets.

While the release received a lot of praise, it stands to question whether toys need to be coded in a way to appeal to each gender. More specifically, why can’t we find a common ground?

Studies show time and time again that we bring these cultural ideologies to our children. We place the blue toys in front of our boys; the purple in front of our girls. While this may seem like a harmless tactic, the practice has embedded itself in our society in harmful ways. We believe that boys prefer the aggressive and adventurous models while girls will be content with anything that has sparkles.

Like most parents, I want my children to be happy and healthy. I want them to respect others and work hard to find their passions as they grow. This goal would not change based on the gender of my children, so why should the toys on the market separate the two into very distinct and disparate categories?

Child with Chalk

In 2014, Lands End came up fire after providing science-themed t-shirts for boys while providing more feminine designs for their line of girls’ clothing. This might not seem alarming, but for one mother with a child with dreams of being an astronaut, the differences were problematic.

In fact, at the time, Land’s End’s marketing reflected this difference. One could buy “Mighty” Tees for Boys; “Adorable” Tees for girls. In a letter addressed to the company, the mother presented her reasons why she finds it uncomfortable that her female child does not have the same STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) themed shirts as the boys.

The company was quick to remedy the situation by producing STEM themed shirts for girls. And they continue to do so today. In fact, the company has changed their labeling entirely. They’ve removed the gender-based descriptions involving clothing categories. Gone are ‘Mighty’ and ‘Adorable’. Today, they stick with “Graphic Tees”. Plain, simple, neutral.

In twenty years, I imagine that we’ll see fewer toys marketed in pink and blue and more toys manufactured in a gender-neutral design, aesthetic, and marketing. We’re already moving in that direction. Disney’s recent release of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is a beautiful illustration of our society’s progressive shift. Rey, the franchise’s first female heroine, dominated screen time and offers a new model for young girls to emulate. She’s tough, gritty, and loves working with her hands.

She’s no Disney Princess yet she’s likable, kind, and seriously smart. In short, she doesn’t fall into a specific gendered category. She’s an individual.

If we’re serious about changing the cultural ideologies of gender, Rey is exactly the type of adventurous hero that our girls, and our boys, need to see.

Rey from Star Wars

 

The Good (Enough) Parent

The Good (Enough) Parent (1)

As a high school administrator, I spend my days surrounded by students. At night, I come home to my kids. If working with young people was not my passion, I probably would have switched career paths decades ago. While I’m grateful for the energy that’s produced in such a high energy world, at times I worry that I’m spread too thin. Am I giving all of the children in my life adequate attention?

Parenting is a job without a raise or a vacation. If you allow it, the position will consume your thoughts and linger in the back of your mind. This can be dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, parenting is a job that should be taken seriously. It’s also a job that permits flexibility, trial and error, and even inconsistency.

We’ve all experienced times in our parenting lives where we have less time, energy, even love, to give to our children. In these moments, we’re faced with a choice. We can allow the experience to remain fixed in our minds: I’m not doing a good job. This fixed philosophy is a difficult burden to release. If we’re constantly fearful that what we’re giving is inadequate, we’ll never fully feel accomplished. Worse, we’ll be discouraged to find ways to change. Alternatively, we can adopt a positive growth mindset. This mode of thinking emphasizes growth. While you may be struggling in one area, you’re succeeding in other ways. For example, consider the mother who may feel guilty for driving her kids to school each day because she leaves early for work. While she may feel like this is a disservice to her children; her professional responsibilities provide critical resources for the entire family. While the positive growth mindset may seem challenging to adopt, it’s foundation is built on a hefty amount of self-reflection.

 

Bubbles

 

Self-reflection is a powerful tool to help anyone learn and grow from their past experiences. As good (enough) parents, we continuously reflect on our children. We keep a running tally of physical ailments, emotional outbursts, subjects they might find challenging in school. These lists may seem disparate, however, the self-reflective parent naturally weaves these areas together in his/her mind. They look for direct correlations. Could a food allergy be causing both a physical ailment and an emotional outburst?

Enter the Good Enough mindset. What does that mean? To start, it suggests that you’ve already spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the status of your job. This observation should not be dismissed lightly.

A hallmark of a good (enough) parent points to if and how often we notice our children. Positive attention is a luxury. Don’t allow yourself to forget that.

Further, while we may not be able to solve all of our children’s problems today or even in the next decade, we are able to give them what we can, each and every day. Maybe you’re not able to cook dinner every night but you do carve out time for the bedtime rituals. Cling to these traditions and be present in the moment.

It’s time we release our anxieties. Instead, let’s celebrate all we are doing and strive to enjoy each moment we share with our families. Practicing a positive growth mindset can be challenging. But it’s yet another tool we’ll model for our children. It’s yet another way we guide them, love them, and provide them with what we can.

 

Boy holding lantern