Why Handwriting is Necessary


I want to share with you this excellent article by Perry Klass, MD. that appeared in the NY Times on June 20.  CLICK HERE to read the piece on the NY Times website.  The comments on this article are very interesting!  I believe that children do need to learn cursive today, and that keyboarding should not replace this.  For me, when I listen to a lecture, I need to write notes (in cursive) in order to process the information.  So I know that writing in cursive helps me to think.  This article just confirmed for me that handwriting is connected to cognitive abilities.

Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age


Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive.

In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activationin response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type.

“What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

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Should you make your child clean his room?


This is a fascinating piece that appears in today’s NY Times.  CLICK HERE to read this article and reader comments at the NY Times website.  I suppose I never thought about the psychology behind clean and messy rooms.  When my kids were growing up, they maintained the messiest of rooms and I hardly had the energy to fight that battle.  When it got to be so horrible that I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d put my foot down and we’d attack the mess together. However, getting System4 dfw commercial cleaners to clean a room isn’t practical anyway!  But with time, the piles would grow again and chaos ruled their rooms.  After my daughter grew up and got her own apartment, she took pride in keeping her place neat and orderly, which was heartening for me to see.  My son is still more comfortable living in a messy room.  I’m not sure if he’ll ever find roommates who will tolerate this preference.  I really missed the boat on being tough on my kids and insisting that they help with the chores, but if it’s not too late for you, read on…

One of the most interesting lines in this article (to me) was this:  “In research P.E.P. found that preschoolers who were given household duties had better relationships, greater academic success and less drug use in their 20s. They advocate parsing the large task of cleaning a room into components, teaching each sub-task at an age-appropriate level. It can take years.”  You can read more about this by CLICKING HERE.  According to this, “the best predictor of an adult’s success in their mid-20’s was that they started participating in household tasks at age 3 or 4.  As a predictor of success, whether children did chores, and the family attitudes and motivators related to chores are more important than parenting styles, IQ, gender, and types of tasks.” Chores teach important life skills such as self-motivation, prioritizing, and organizational skills.  Yikes!  If you haven’t started to insist that your child help with family chores, I recommend that you take a look at the research and get started today.  It can’t hurt and and at least your house will be cleaner.  Here is the article that I recommend you read from today’s NY Times:

Should I Make My Daughter Clean Her Room? by Judy Batalion

I RECENTLY received an email from my daughter Zelda’s preschool director titled “The Importance of Messy Play.” Children learn through process, she wrote. The act of creating is more important than the result. She pleaded with parents to allow our kids space for disarray.

On one hand, this note was refreshing. In our tidying-obsessed culture where decluttering is considered an act of moral courage, I appreciated the director’s encouragement to “embrace the chaos.” On the other hand, she didn’t have to confront 15 more years of the macaroni-and-Lego-based Jackson Pollock-inspired crash scene that was Zelda’s room.

Many parents accept that, in order to maintain their sanity, they must be selective about the battles they choose to wage with their children. But the mantra to “clean your room” seems nonnegotiable, a foundation of good parenting, rooted in common sense. Learning to keep your surroundings in order and take responsibility for your messes are important to becoming a competent, socially mature adult.

For many, however, cleaning is more complicated. The impulse to tidy can be compulsive, a way to maintain control in the face of anxiety. I am a prime example.

My mother was a hoarder. Born in 1945 on my Jewish grandparents’ flight from the Nazis, Mom was a refugee before she knew what home was. Throughout my childhood, she collected Kleenex boxes, newspapers and videocassettes; swivel chairs seemed to metastasize through the house. As an adult, I came to realize that her piles protected her, but back then her mounds of frayed blankets put a physical and emotional distance between us. There was no room to crawl into her bed when I had a nightmare.

Mom’s chaos spilled into my bedroom. I struggled to make a place for my things among her extra clothes and the ceramic pig collection she bought “as a gift.” Report cards were lost in her maelstrom, and so was I. I felt unseen, devoured by her disorder, trying to find room for myself to grow.

I left home and became Mom’s opposite. I taught myself to organize, imposing a minimalist rule on my life that was not an aesthetic choice, but an emotional one. I rented airy apartments I couldn’t afford and arranged them in geometric lines. My mantra was “less is too much.”

I turned to friends for advice. Their experiences seemed as distressing as mine. Alex was traumatized by her order-obsessed mother who regularly “ransacked” her room, heaping all her stuff into a pile on the floor, then holding her under “house arrest” until it was sorted. My colleague Amy described how her parents had forced her to tidy her room, but never showed her how. “It was pointless discipline because it was too hard for me.” As an adult, she remains overwhelmed by cleaning, and believes this extends to other areas of life. “I procrastinate, maybe because I’m not used to breaking things down in steps. I’m not very methodical.”

Others bemoaned the social side effects of not being forced. One, who grew up with a live-in housekeeper, only started cleaning her room in her 20s, after moving in with her best friend, who nearly fled from her slovenliness. Another, a corporate lawyer, envies co-workers’ neat offices, and worries that her scattered piles make her seem disorganized and impulsive, marring her professional reputation.

I also consulted childhood experts. The Parent Encouragement Program, in the Washington area, is devoted to teaching parents how to teach children to do chores. In research P.E.P. found that preschoolers who were given household duties had better relationships, greater academic success and less drug use in their 20s. They advocate parsing the large task of cleaning a room into components, teaching each sub-task at an age-appropriate level. It can take years.

I related more to the idea that neat spaces reduced stress. Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, told me that visual clutter causes anxiety. Our predecessors surveyed the savanna for danger; we, too, want a clear sense of our surrounds. Clutter also blocks from view the objects that are important for identity formation, she said. “An 11-year-old physics enthusiast should see her calculators, reminders of her ambitions.” Many preschools, influenced by Montessori, advocate barer walls for reduced distraction to allow more focus on important tasks.

But there were also dissenters. Tamar Gordon, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders, thought people could be too hung up on cleaning. “What’s important for children is structure,” she said, “not necessarily the same thing as a clean room.” She explained that some kids are naturally neat, freaking out over a spot of paint on their hand, while others barely notice their visual environment. The parents’ job is to assess their child, and teach the opposite: Sticklers needed to learn flexibility, messy kids, regimen.

In all my research, I found no proven correlation between keeping a neat room and leading a functional, goal-oriented life. Lessons like respecting shared space and managing time can be achieved through homework or scrubbing the kitchen. And according to the clinicians I spoke to, the family friction that erupts when parents force messier kids to be neat can cause real destructive stress.

Alan Kazdin at the Yale Parenting Center explained that there had been no clean-room studies because the issue was not critical. “It’s normative for adolescents to be super messy,” he told me. “We don’t know why.” Parents should consider whether their child’s messy room is indicative of other problems (at school, for instance) or impairs daily function (mice, allergens, impaling hazards). If it’s the case of an isolated messy bedroom, let it go. “It’s important for teenagers to have areas of control. Parents believe in a slippery slope, which just isn’t true.”

My childhood friend Sarah, now a successful children’s author, was always messy. Her mother never forced her to clean her room (though she made her help with communal spaces). Over the phone, she told me that her family still called her “Tornado Sarah” and that she felt lucky to have relatives, and editors, who helped her tidy up. Her disarray, she thinks, might be linked to her creativity. “When I start a new project, I’m not worried about jumping in or making messes. I don’t focus on getting it right,” she said. “I just throw ideas around.”

It made sense. Making Zelda clean her room might satisfy my organizational needs, but it probably wouldn’t make her a superior person. O.K., I admit that when Zelda dumped a box of musical instruments onto her glitter-strewn floor that evening, I panicked. But as she danced around, banging her drum, I let it go and joined in, saving my energies for the battle of bedtime.

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The Littlest Chess Champions, By JOHN LELAND


I love this article about young children playing chess.  What a fantastic time to introduce chess into a person’s life!  I recommend that you read this piece on the NY Times website as the pictures are terrific, plus comments enlightening.  To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.

The Littlest Chess Champions

Benjamin Kwon does not look like a gladiator, but you should see him play the Fried Liver Attack, a wildly aggressive chess opening that wages an all-out assault on the opposing player’s king. The opening is not for the fainthearted.

On a recent Friday afternoon, he beamed as he rattled off the first moves for both sides: pawn to E4, pawn to E5, bishop to C4, and so on, until he got to the real moment of attack, knight to G5. This is where the Fried Liver Attack gets hairy. “Nothing can block it,” he said, his face lighting up.

Benjamin Kwon is 6 years old.

We were sitting in small wooden chairs at Public School 77, the Lower Lab School, a school for gifted and talented students on the Upper East Side. “Sitting” might be an imprecise word for Ben’s state of constant up-and-down motion.

Last month, Lower Lab’s team of kindergartners and first graders finished first in the state chess tournament, defeating elite private schools like Dalton and Avenues: The World School. Earlier in the school year, a Lower Lab team of first graders won the national championship for their grade. The next national tournament is in May.

For Ben, a first grader who did not go to the nationals, the state tournament in Saratoga was a weekend to remember.

“The team trophy was taller than me,” he said, almost jumping out of his seat. “The dinner place was so yum — Applebee’s. The first thing you got was nachos.”

Chess is enjoying a boom in New York, and much of it is because of schools like Lower Lab, which have brought the game to very young players, often as part of the regular curriculum. Educators cite research showing that chess helps students develop analytical thinking, set goals, concentrate for extended periods and learn to delay gratification.

“It gives them a different way of using their brain,” said Sandra Miller, the principal at Lower Lab, where every student gets 10 weeks of chess in kindergarten. “It’s an amazing opportunity for them to challenge themselves. With gifted and talented students, sometimes kids get bored with classes, because the work comes so easy for them.”

For Ben Kwon, the appeal was simple. “I really got excited because all my friends were playing chess,” he said.

For schools, chess is also cheaper than sports that require outdoor fields or a lot of equipment.

On a Friday this month, about 70 students from Lower Lab swarmed the weekly after-school session taught by instructors from ChessNYC, a for-profit company that runs programs in 40 New York schools.

Spring was beckoning outside, but the children did not seem to notice. Logan Brain, 26, an instructor, rehashed a game from a recent adult tournament and asked the students what moves each player should make.

Ian Buchanan, a third grader, suggested an unorthodox move, which Mr. Brain questioned. “That’s a Karjakin move,” Ian countered, referring to Sergey Karjakin, a Russian player who at age 12 became the youngest grandmaster ever.

The name drew respect in the room. Mr. Karjakin, now 26, will play the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, 25, in the World Chess Championship in New York City this November. It is the first time the championship tournament will be played in New York since 1995.

Ian is one of the top players at Lower Lab, but he was recently passed by his younger brother, Royal, a first grader, who fidgeted in front of him. Royal is among the best 6-year-olds in the country. The brothers’ success has surprised their mother, Li Xiao, a portfolio manager at Citigroup.

“My husband and I don’t know chess at all,” she said.

The game has also been a window on their characters.

“You see their personality, how they deal with the problems, and the stress,” she said. “Royal is fine with losing. He doesn’t cry. I wonder at this age if they get nervous. I haven’t seen it that much. They don’t realize the situation yet.”

Royal sometimes gets restless in his classes, but can sit for hours at a time over a chessboard, his mother said. “It’s the only activity he can focus on,” Ms. Xiao said. “He goes to tournaments, and sometimes the game goes on for two hours. I’m surprised he can sit, but he does.”

During a break, Royal answered questions distractedly, staring at his fingers as if contemplating future moves. Like his teammates, he readily cited his chess rating, a figure that changes each time a player wins or loses in a tournament. Players monitor their ratings and those of their friends on the website plycount.com. At the start of a match, the first question after they sit down at the board is often, What’s your rating?

Since kindergarten, Royal and another boy, Morgan Mairaj, have leapfrogged each other as the team’s top player, with ratings climbing above 1,300, or twice as high as most of their teammates. Players raise their ratings by beating higher-rated opponents, but fall back if they lose to opponents with lower ratings. At tournaments, players are grouped according to their ratings. Royal said his goal was to top 1,800 by the end of the year.

“Magnus Carlsen is 1,500 higher than me,” he said. (It should be noted that Mr. Carlsen is the highest rated chess player in history, at 2,863. Bobby Fischer never broke 2,800.)

For parents, the numbers are a mixed blessing. “The coaches and parents hate it, but kids absolutely love it,” said Peter Marinis, who has two sons playing on the team, and a third coming up behind them. “They’re like, Dad, what’s my score? I never knew they were so competitive.”

In a room across the hall, Reid Segarra, a kindergartner, unwound the dilemma of the young chess player.

“Chess helps you think better, like, which move should I do?” Reid said. “If you’re in a losing position, then you have to make your brain think really hard, because if your opponent makes a mistake, you can come back. Also, if you’re in a winning position, you just can’t make mistakes, so your brain has to think really, really, really hard so you don’t make a mistake, or he could come back if you do. And if it’s an even position, you have to get your brain to think really, really hard, harder than a winning position or a losing position, because you want to get in a winning position.”

For competitive players and their families, the game is demanding. There’s a tournament somewhere in the city every week or two, typically lasting all day; parents from Lower Lab drove to Saratoga for the two-day state championships, and to Nashville last year for the nationals. Mr. Brain assigns 50 chess puzzles weekly as homework. Then there are pickup games or Saturday lessons at the Chess Forum, a store on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, or at the tables in Washington Square Park.

“These kids are very committed, and if you’re not committed, it is very difficult to stay at the top echelon,” said Ashar Mairaj, the father of Morgan and an older daughter, Momoca, who is also one of the school’s top players. “You have your puzzle set every day. You play with your sibling every day. You have a tutor that comes once a week and teaches you strategy. Every day you have a regimen.”

The game can also be expensive. At Lower Lab, fees for the after-school program top $500 a semester, which helps pay for the teachers from ChessNYC. Tournaments run about $40 per student; travel costs are extra. The school and PTA pay for kindergarten instruction run by ChessNYC, and parent volunteers run a lunchtime chess club for girls, formed to address the shortage of girls in the competitive ranks.

“It’s a really big commitment,” said Amy Gillston, a child therapist, whose first-grade son, Noah, attends Lower Lab. “Some of these private schools, they spend on private coaching with the best of the best. All of us agree that we’re only doing this while it’s fun.”

On a recent afternoon, Pattie Friedman and her son, Davin, walked from the Chess Forum to Washington Square Park in search of Davin’s tutor, a weathered character named Abderrahim Rajahi, 55, who has been playing there since the late 1980s, when he learned the game from the old-time hustlers and later joined their ranks. Somewhere along the way he lost his upper front teeth.

In the early days, he said, he worked as a bicycle messenger by day and played chess in various parks until dawn, losing $40 a night.

“I didn’t read no books,” he said of his training. “I played the same hustler every day for a year and a half. I got whipped. Then one night he couldn’t beat me.”

Davin goofed through a game with Mr. Rajahi, then asked if he could run around. When he returned, Mr. Rajahi grilled him on the Ruy Lopez opening, one of the oldest and most venerated chess openings (the Fried Liver, Mr. Rajahi said, is for beginners). “Don’t be guessing,” Mr. Rajahi told Davin. “Use your mind. Chess is a war of the mind.”

The teacher said he did not have a set fee for lessons. At Growing Minds, a company that runs the chess program at Avenues, private lessons cost $90 an hour; ChessNYC charges $75 to $95 for a one-hour home lesson.

Mr. Rajahi said he was planning a summer day camp that might combine chess with lessons in math and foreign languages.

“I don’t look at it just as a game,” he said. “It’s a way to make a beautiful mind of a kid’s mind. With the experience I had, I try to turn it into a good thing. You teach a kid to think positively and to make a good plan for the future. Sometimes you make mistakes that cost you the game. Life is like that.”

A week later, Davin and 28 other Lower Lab players made their way to the Avenues school for their first major tournament since winning the state championships in Saratoga. The tournament brought together students from 65 area schools, and had to turn students away after filling its 250 slots. Boys outnumbered girls by about four to one. Pandemonium and sugar intake swelled the halls, only slowly giving way to chess.

Peter Marinis and his sons arrived at 9:30 a.m., after 8 a.m. baseball; later, they had a birthday party to attend.

For parents, the tournaments are an endurance test, often lasting eight hours. In contrast to sporting events or dance recitals, junior chess tournaments typically do not allow parents into the rooms where the children play, so they waited in a team room, learning the results only when the children returned between rounds to go over their games with Mr. Brain.

“It’s stomach-churning,” said Mr. Mairaj, waiting for the results of his children’s games. “It’s never boring. How can something that gives you anxiety be boring?”

The Lower Lab team got off to a rocky start, with the first three players losing their first games.

Mr. Marinis’s son Rylan, 6, slumped toward the paper score sheet and wrote a zero to announce his loss. “High five,” Mr. Marinis said. “Win or lose, it’s always high fives.”

Then Ben Kwon posted the team’s first victory. He played an opening similar to the Fried Liver, but not exactly, he said, and beat an opponent rated higher than he was. He sailed across the room to his mother, Michelle Park.

Ms. Park said she had been surprised by how much there was to the chess subculture — how many tournaments, how many players. She mentioned several other tournaments going on at other schools the same weekend. “We didn’t know this existed before,” she said.

By midafternoon, things were looking better for Lower Lab. In the fifth-floor library, where students with ratings below 800 matched off, Noah Gillston, a quiet first grader with a mop of sandy hair, stood up to move his knight across the board. He was on a roll, winning his first three games.

Just before 2:30, the beginner players marched into the team room carrying trophies. More wins followed. Noah won all four games, leading his group to victory. Mr. Brain comforted a father whose son had lost some winnable games. “Those mistakes go away,” Mr. Brain told the father, before turning to the son. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “You’re doing well.”

Seven hours into the tournament, families in the less advanced groups — whose games tend to be shorter — were making their way out into the late-afternoon sunshine. Ms. Xiao awaited the return of her two sons, whose games were still in progress. “Now’s the real work,” she said: cooking dinner for five, supervising Sunday night homework and maybe stealing a quiet moment with her husband. “Then I clean up and get to bed at 12 o’clock, basically.”

Monday morning everything would start up again — the tutors, the chess puzzles, the competitive games between siblings. And in less than a month, some will go to the national championships in Nashville.

Mr. Marinis, who is planning to fly to Nashville this year (last year he and others drove), was bound for ice cream and the birthday party, his three sons in tow. His older son, Pearce, had won three of his four games, raising his rating to a tantalizing 999.

“I use these as lessons for homework,” Mr. Marinis said of the tournament. “I say, ‘If you can do what you did on Sunday, look, this math is not going to be a problem.’”

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Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills, by Kate Zernike


This article appears in today’s NY Times.  I highly recommend that you read it there, not only for the article and interactive quiz, but for all the comments readers made.  This provoked a lot of discussion.  CLICK HERE to read this article at the NY Times website.  “Grit” is such an important quality to develop in our kids.  Although really, I believe it is much more important for parents to really understand what this means and to take it upon themselves to raise kids with “true grit!”  This is not something I would ever depend on my school system to instill in my child.  Having had 2 kids go through formal education, I can really see that it is their grit that is what they are relying on to get a successful start in life.

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors. And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.

A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance. So other states are watching these districts as a potential model. But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.

She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paperwarning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

And there is little agreement on what skills matter: Self-control? Empathy? Perseverance? Joy?

“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”

Schools began emphasizing social-emotional learning around 2011, after an analysis of 213 school-based programs teaching such skills found that they improved academic achievement by 11 percentile points. A book extolling efforts to teach social-emotional skills in schools such as the KIPP charter network and Riverdale Country School in New York, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough, appeared the next year.

Argument still rages about whether schools can or should emphasize these skills. Critics say the approach risks blaming the victim — if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools — and excuses uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop “zest,” or enthusiasm. Groups that spent decades urging the country toward higher academic standards worry about returning to empty talk of self-esteem, accepting low achievement as long as students feel good.

But teaching social-emotional skills is often seen as a way to move away from a narrow focus on test scores, and to consider instead the whole child. It may seem contradictory, then, to test for those skills. In education, however, the adage is “what’s measured gets treasured”; states give schools money to teach the subjects on which they will be judged.

Next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of students in grades four, eight and 12 that is often referred to as the nation’s report card, will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills. A well-known international test, PISA, is moving toward the same.

The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for “superficial parroting” rather than real changes in mind-set.

“You think test scores are easy to game?” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is working with the districts in California. “They’re relatively hard to game when you compare them to a self-report survey.”

Students might be tested on performance, as in the “marshmallow test,” in which children were told they could have a sweeter reward if they waited. Those who waited scored higher in self-control. But those tests are too time-consuming to use on a large group of students.

Other researchers have proposed calling or texting students at regular intervals to check their behavior and frame of mind, or monitoring Facebook or Twitter to observe patterns of behavior. But privacy concerns would almost certainly disqualify those.

Transforming Education, a Boston-based group that is among the biggest proponents of teaching social-emotional skills, argues that they are so important that schools have to begin testing for them, even if perfect measures do not exist.

The group worked with the school districts here — which count one million students, or 20 percent of the state total, in cities including Los Angeles and Oakland — to choose four measures to evaluate: growth mind-set, social awareness, self-efficacy and self-management.

The districts tested 10,000 students in 2014, and nearly 500,000 students last year, surveying things like how many days the students had come to school prepared (self-management), and whether they believed it was more important to be talented or to work hard (growth mind-set).

Just two years ago in her classroom in a trailer here at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, Ms. Cooney struggled with the kind of management problems that often confront young teachers.

Her students, mostly poor and living in a nearby housing project, were bouncing around the classroom, playing with their phones instead of paying attention, fighting out interfamily beefs. Even if they wanted to learn, they were not.

Ms. Cooney, 27, took a two-hour training session in a student-behavior program and began playing “good-behavior games.” They look like regular lessons, except that they begin with students identifying goals for good behavior, and end with her assessing what went right and wrong.

On a recent day, students took notes on their reading as Ms. Cooney moved with a kind of Zen bustle around the classroom, grading papers and consulting one-on-one while she watched for things she would compliment the class on later — keeping bodies still, focusing on the task — and quietly noted bad behavior.

For every 1,000 minutes of good behavior earned, the children win 15 extra minutes of recess.

“I’m really saving minutes that would be lost to transitions, settling disputes and behavior problems,” Ms. Cooney said. It can be exhausting, but not nearly as much as teaching before. As she said, “Would you rather put out fires, or prevent them?”

Social-emotional learning will count for 8 percent of a school’s overall performance score; no teacher will lose a job for failing to instill a growth mind-set.

Noah Bookman, the chief accountability officer for the districts, said he understood the concerns about testing. But, he said, “This work is so phenomenally important to the success of our kids in school and life. In some ways, we worry as much if not more about the possibility that these indicators remain on the back burner.”

Correction: March 2, 2016
An article on Tuesday about a nationwide push to test the emotional skills of students misidentified a school in New York that is discussed in the book “How Children Succeed,” which extols the efforts to teach such skills. It is Riverdale Country School, not Horace Mann.

1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

  • Very much like me

  • Mostly like me

  • Somewhat like me

  • Not much like me

  • Not like me at all

2. Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.

  • Very much like me

  • Mostly like me

  • Somewhat like me

  • Not much like me

  • Not like me at all

3. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

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  • Mostly like me

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How Class Differences Impact Child Rearing


This is an outstanding article from the NY Times explaining how differences in socio-economic background impact the way we raise our children.  Every parent should read this piece.  To read it at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.  There are some very insightful comments from readers on the actual website.

Class Differences in Child-Rearing Are on the Rise

The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.

Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.

In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.

The class differences in child rearing are growing, researchers say — a symptom of widening inequality with far-reaching consequences. Different upbringings set children on different paths and can deepen socioeconomic divisions, especially because education is strongly linked to earnings. Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.

“Early childhood experiences can be very consequential for children’s long-term social, emotional and cognitive development,” said Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “And because those influence educational success and later earnings, early childhood experiences cast a lifelong shadow.”

The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.

Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.

In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.

The class differences in child rearing are growing, researchers say — a symptom of widening inequality with far-reaching consequences. Different upbringings set children on different paths and can deepen socioeconomic divisions, especially because education is strongly linked to earnings. Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.

“Early childhood experiences can be very consequential for children’s long-term social, emotional and cognitive development,” said Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “And because those influence educational success and later earnings, early childhood experiences cast a lifelong shadow.”

The cycle continues: Poorer parents have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children, which can leave children less prepared for school and work, which leads to lower earnings.

American parents want similar things for their children, the Pew report and past research have found: for them to be healthy and happy, honest and ethical, caring and compassionate. There is no best parenting style or philosophy, researchers say, and across income groups, 92 percent of parents say they are doing a good job at raising their children.

Yet they are doing it quite differently.

Middle-class and higher-income parents see their children as projects in need of careful cultivation, says Annette Lareau, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist whose groundbreaking research on the topic was published in her book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.” They try to develop their skills through close supervision and organized activities, and teach children to question authority figures and navigate elite institutions.

Working-class parents, meanwhile, believe their children will naturally thrive, and give them far greater independence and time for free play. They are taught to be compliant and deferential to adults.

There are benefits to both approaches. Working-class children are happier, more independent, whine less and are closer with family members, Ms. Lareau found. Higher-income children are more likely to declare boredom and expect their parents to solve their problems.

Yet later on, the more affluent children end up in college and en route to the middle class, while working-class children tend to struggle. Children from higher-income families are likely to have the skills to navigate bureaucracies and succeed in schools and workplaces, Ms. Lareau said.

“Do all parents want the most success for their children? Absolutely,” she said. “Do some strategies give children more advantages than others in institutions? Probably they do. Will parents be damaging children if they have one fewer organized activity? No, I really doubt it.”

Social scientists say the differences arise in part because low-income parents have less money to spend on music class or preschool, and less flexible schedules to take children to museums or attend school events.

Extracurricular activities epitomize the differences in child rearing in the Pew survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,807 parents. Of families earning more than $75,000 a year, 84 percent say their children have participated in organized sports over the past year, 64 percent have done volunteer work and 62 percent have taken lessons in music, dance or art. Of families earning less than $30,000, 59 percent of children have done sports, 37 percent have volunteered and 41 percent have taken arts classes.

Especially in affluent families, children start young. Nearly half of high-earning, college-graduate parents enrolled their children in arts classes before they were 5, compared with one-fifth of low-income, less-educated parents.

Nonetheless, 20 percent of well-off parents say their children’s schedules are too hectic, compared with 8 percent of poorer parents.

Another example is reading aloud, which studies have shown gives children bigger vocabularies and better reading comprehension in school. Seventy-one percent of parents with a college degree say they do it every day, compared with 33 percent of those with a high school diploma or less, Pew found. White parents are more likely than others to read to their children daily, as are married parents.

Most affluent parents enroll their children in preschool or day care, while low-income parents are more likely to depend on family members.

Discipline techniques vary by education level: 8 percent of those with a postgraduate degree say they often spank their children, compared with 22 percent of those with a high school degree or less.

The survey also probed attitudes and anxieties. Interestingly, parents’ attitudes toward education do not seem to reflect their own educational background as much as a belief in the importance of education for upward mobility.

Most American parents say they are not concerned about their children’s grades as long as they work hard. But 50 percent of poor parents say it is extremely important to them that their children earn a college degree, compared with 39 percent of wealthier parents.

Less-educated parents, and poorer and black and Latino parents are more likely to believe that there is no such thing as too much involvement in a child’s education. Parents who are white, wealthy or college-educated say too much involvement can be bad.

Parental anxieties reflect their circumstances. High-earning parents are much more likely to say they live in a good neighborhood for raising children. While bullying is parents’ greatest concern over all, nearly half of low-income parents worry their child will get shot, compared with one-fifth of high-income parents. They are more worried about their children being depressed or anxious.

In the Pew survey, middle-class families earning between $30,000 and $75,000 a year fell right between working-class and high-earning parents on issues like the quality of their neighborhood for raising children, participation in extracurricular activities and involvement in their children’s education.

Children were not always raised so differently. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to Mr. Reardon’s research.

People used to live near people of different income levels; neighborhoods are now more segregated by income. More than a quarter of children live in single-parent households — a historic high, according to Pew – and these children are three times as likely to live in poverty as those who live with married parents. Meanwhile, growing income inequality has coincided with the increasing importance of a college degree for earning a middle-class wage.

Yet there are recent signs that the gap could be starting to shrink. In the past decade, even as income inequality has grown, some of the socioeconomic differences in parenting, like reading to children and going to libraries, have narrowed, Mr. Reardon and others have found.

Public policies aimed at young children have helped, he said, including public preschool programs and reading initiatives. Addressing disparities in the earliest years, it seems, could reduce inequality in the next generation.

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Own Books and Your Child Will Be Smarter


I love this article in the NY Times, which quotes a very important study that says that owning books is the most important thing you can do for your child academically.  There are so many opportunities to acquire books affordably through books from school fairs or second hand shops, here’s why it is such a good idea to do so.  Read the article here at the New York Times Website!  CLICK HERE.

Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves

S. Craig Watkins, a professor who studies the digital media behavior of young people in the department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, said that he and his family almost exclusively stream music now in their home and that he and his wife stored their old CDs in a seldom-used cabinet. To his teenage daughter, “those CDs are, at best, background matter,” he said.

“I can’t recall her ever taking time to search through what’s in there,” Professor Watkins said. “But I could imagine that when she gets a little older, it might become meaningful to her — that those artifacts are a way to connect back to us.”

Sometimes, though, he and his daughter discuss what is on their devices’ playlists.

There are several big upsides to growing up with streaming audio, one of which is accessibility: assuming I was interested enough, I could have explored, for free, the Beatles’ catalog on the Internet far beyond the scope of my parents’ collection.

But in our digital conversion of media (perhaps buttressed by applicationof the popular KonMari method of decluttering), physical objects have been expunged at a cost. Aside from the disappearance of record crates and CD towers, the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development.

Perhaps the strongest case for a household full of print books came from a 2014 study published in the sociology journal Social Forces. Researchers measured the impact of the size of home libraries on the reading level of 15-year-old students across 42 nations, controlling for wealth, parents’ education and occupations, gender and the country’s gross national product.

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance. The greatest effect was seen in libraries of about 100 books, which resulted in approximately 1.5 extra years of grade-level reading performance. (Diminishing returns kick in at about 500 books, which is the equivalent of about 2.2 extra years of education.)

Libraries matter even more than money; in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10 percent of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10 percent.

The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor.

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Story Time is the New Hot Ticket!


I love the fact that story time at the public library is the new hot ticket in town.  Here is an article that recently appeared in the NY Times about the popularity of story time at libraries in the city.  I’m sure this is a trend that is sweeping the country because what is more fun and important for kids than reading.  CLICK HERE to read this piece at the NY Times website.  And next time you’re looking for something fun to do with your child, check out story time at your local library!

Long Line at the Library? It’s Story Time Again

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The New SAT


I know this is well into the future for most of your kids, but here is an update on the new SAT, which is coming to an auditorium near you!  I’m always telling parents that the reason that you want your child to take those oh so dreaded state achievement tests is because someday, she’ll have to take an SAT to get into college.  Kids need a lot of practice to become good test-takers, and they need to be good test-takers to do well on the mother of all standardized tests.  Here is a piece that Eric Hoover wrote for the New York Times about the new SAT, and how to prepare for it.  CLICK HERE to read the piece at the NY Times website.

Everything You Need to Know About the New SAT

So the big question burning up the web: Which version should I take? The answer could come down to timing. Students have just three more chances to take the current SAT — the last testing date is Jan. 23.

One advantage of sticking with the current version: It’s a known quantity, and plenty of review materials exist. Those who were happy with their PSAT scores might want to take the soon-to-be-old SAT, which would look familiar to them. “There’s not a test-prep tutor anywhere who could look a family in the eye and say, ‘We can do as good a job for you on the new SAT this year,’ ” Mr. Ingersoll said.

Most students take the SAT for the first time in spring of their junior year. Those who don’t want to rush might decide that the new test, though less familiar, fits their schedule better. But remember this: The first cohort to take the new SAT, in March, won’t get their scores until after the next test date, in May. That’s about double the current wait time.

The second question everyone is asking: Is the new test harder? No, several test preppers insist, though some students might stumble over the longer reading passages, the deeper dive into math and questions that require multiple steps to reach an answer. Those concerns could drive many students to take the old test — or the ACT.

Some expect that the new SAT will be even more challenging for the disadvantaged. By weaving more tightly into high-school curriculum, the test would seem to best serve students at high-performing schools, with the strong teachers who prepare them for state standards, as well as affluent students with access to test prep.

“There’s a new body style on the Chevrolet, but it has zero to do with performance — the engine’s the same,” said Jay Rosner, the Princeton Review Foundation’s executive director, who tutors low-income and underrepresented minority students. “It’s going to generate the same hierarchy of scores that exists now.”

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The Latest on Common Core Testing


If you are following the controversy surrounding Common Core testing, I highly recommend this article in today’s NY Times by Kate Zernike.  CLICK HERE to read it at the NY Times website.  This provides an excellent overview on where things stand today and foreshadows where they are headed.  The reader comments are thoughtful and passionate, and provide a picture of how strongly people feel about standardized testing and Common Core in particular.

Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U.S.

BOSTON — It has been one of the most stubborn problems in education: With 50 states, 50 standards and 50 tests, how could anyone really know what American students were learning, or how well?

 with colleagues in 2009, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’s commissioner of education, hatched what seemed like an obvious answer — a national test based on the Common Core standards that almost every state had recently adopted.

Now Dr. Chester finds himself in the awkward position of walking away from the very test he helped create.

On his recommendation, the State Board of Education decided last week that Massachusetts would go it alone and abandon the multistate test in favor of one to be developed for just this state. The move will cost an extra year and unknown millions of dollars.

Across the country, what was once bipartisan consensus around national standards has collapsed into acrimony about the Common Core, with states dropping out of the two national tests tied to it that had been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education strategy.

But no about-face has resonated more than the one in Massachusetts, for years a leader in education reform. This state embraced uniform standards and tests with consequences more than two decades before the Common Core, and by 2005, its children led all states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, and rose above all other countries, save Singapore, in science.

The state’s participation was seen as validation of the Common Core and the multistate test; Dr. Chester became the chairman of the board that oversees the test Massachusetts joined. The state’s rejection of that test sounded the bell on common assessments, signaling that the future will now look much like the past — with more tests, but almost no ability to compare the difference between one state and another.

“It’s hugely symbolic because Massachusetts is widely seen as kind of the gold standard in successful education reform,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, who is leading an evaluation of the national tests. “It opens the door for a lot of other states that are under a lot of pressure to repeal Common Core. Getting rid of these tests is a nice bone to throw.”

The fight in Massachusetts has been dizzying, with a strange alliance between the teachers’ union and a conservative think tank that years before had been a chief proponent of the state’s earlier drive for standards and high-stakes tests. As in other states, conservatives complained of federal overreach into local schooling, while the union objected to tying the tests to teacher evaluations. The debate drew money from national political players like the billionaire David Koch and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Amid the noise, many parents had trouble understanding what the Common Core was, or argued that the nation’s public schoolchildren took too many tests. So while parents and students here did not opt out of testing in the waves they did in places like New York and New Jersey, they also did not express much support.

“It’s much more about politics than it is about education,” said Tom Scott, the executive director of the state superintendents’ association, which had encouraged the state to keep the multistate test.

People on either side of the debate here still celebrate the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 as “the grand bargain.” Democratic legislators and the Republican governor at the time, William F. Weld, agreed to give schools more money in exchange for ambitious standards defining what students were expected to learn and new tests tied to those standards, including one that, by 2003, students had to pass to graduate from high school.

But while state scores rose, there were still hints that the new standards were not teaching the skills students needed. The number requiring remedial education in college remained high. So the state joined in when the National Governors Association began drafting what became the Common Core, a description of the skills students should learn by the time they graduated from high school. Because of the state’s expertise, large numbers of its teachers joined in writing the standards. The state adopted them in 2010.

Dr. Chester and his counterparts in Louisiana and Florida proposed that states also combine resources on a test, not only to compare results but to afford a better test design.

As states rolled out the new tests over the last two years, parents and teachers pushed back in states from Oregon to Florida. There were technical glitches, as well as complaints that the exams were too hard and too long. When states began reporting poor results, parents and policy makers did not necessarily see the benefit of comparing their schools with others.

But at hearings here this fall, many superintendents and teachers testified that the new test, known as Parcc, for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, had improved what was happening in classrooms. Given the choice between the state’s old test and the multistate test this spring, more than half the state’s school districts chose Parcc.

“If we revert back to the old standards, all this work will have been for naught,” said Dianne Kelly, the superintendent in Revere, who credits the standards for tripling the number of students taking algebra in eighth grade and doubling the number taking Advanced Placement courses.

The opposition came from what might have once seemed an unlikely place, the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank that had been a driver behind the higher standards in the 1993 legislation. It had hired Tom Birmingham, who as a Democratic state senator had been a co-author of that legislation. He warned that the state would be pressured to lower standards as other states hid failure by lowering the bar for passing.

“It becomes not a race to the top but a race to the middle,” Mr. Birmingham said in an interview.

The federal government was not involved in writing the Common Core. But Pioneer, like other conservative groups, argued that the Obama administration had forced it on states by granting money to the national tests. As part of its Race to the Top program, the administration in 2010 awarded about $350 million to design the Parcc and the other national test, known as Smarter Balanced.

That argument persuaded even educators who believed the Common Core was improving what happened in the classroom.

“It was almost like extortion — if you want this money, you have to do things the way we want,” said Todd Gazda, the superintendent in Ludlow, near the western Massachusetts city of Springfield.

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Paul Toner, had supported the Parcc test. But in 2014, the membership elected a new president, Barbara Madeloni, who had campaigned against high-stakes tests, period.

“It is destructive to our students and our teachers and the very possibility of joyful and meaningful public education,” Dr. Madeloni said in an interview.

“We’ve really flipped the narrative in a year,” she said.

Supporters of the standards countered that Pioneer’s biggest donors include Mr. Koch and the Walton Family Foundation, funders of other conservative causes. Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director, said, “David Koch never talked to me about Common Core.”

Supporters of Parcc also accused its opponents of distorting facts. The opponents argued, for instance, that the new standards squeezed out literature and poetry. In fact, Common Core requires students to read more nonfiction, but only because it requires them to do expository reading in all subjects, including science and math.

“The opposition was making some wild claims that the proponents answered with factual information, assuming that everyone would take a very rational approach to the facts and reach a valid conclusion,” said Linda M. Noonan, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a proponent of higher standards. “But that isn’t how the public process works.”

The multistate exam was not the only one in the glut of testing, but it became the most toxic.

“We blew it,” said Mr. Scott, at the state superintendents’ association. “That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of good that’s going out with it.”

Making his recommendation for a new test to the state board of education, Dr. Chester described it as the best of both worlds. The new test will use Parcc content, which better reflects the Common Core, but the state will maintain the flexibility to change or add material without having to go through a committee of multiple states.

Dr. Chester said Massachusetts would remain in the Parcc consortium so it could compare results with other states.

“We’re increasingly a global world,” he said. “And the idea that 50 different states in the United States had 50 different definitions of what it means to be literate and what it means to know math — and on top of that those 50 states had 50 different assessments to determine whether you’re literate or whether you know math — makes little sense.”

But with states dropping out of the tests, comparisons remain elusive. Parcc began as a cooperation between 26 states, but now only five and the District of Columbia will use the test. Smarter Balanced began with 31 states — some states joined both groups — and now counts 15. Three states have repealed the Common Core altogether, and here a proposed ballot initiative would do the same.

Concerns about the tests have become self-fulfilling. Officials in Massachusetts said that the multistate test had become less appealing now that there were fewer states to compare and that they feared that Parcc would fail, leaving them without a test. Lawmakers in states still using the test point to the states’ withdrawing as evidence that it is not valid.

Still, Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit founded by business groups and governors that helped states draft the Common Core, noted that even in states that are re-examining it and the Common Core, most are sticking with the higher standards.

“The notion that the Parcc brand is somehow toxic, that has happened and will continue to happen,” he said. “But at the end of the day, there will be, in the overwhelming majority of states, standards that are still highly common.”

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Children’s Tablets Review: The Electronic Baby Sitter Wises Up


This very important article appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.  CLICK HERE to read the article at WS Journal’s website!  I recommend that you read the piece there to see pictures of the devices that Mr. Fowler reviews in his article.  With the holidays coming up, this couldn’t appear at a better time!

Children’s Tablets Review: The Electronic Baby Sitter Wises Up

The Amazon Fire Kids Edition, LeapFrog Epic and Fuhu Nabi Elev-8 educate and entertain and may just leave parents guilt-free

by Geoffrey A. Fowler

The tablet has become a staple of the American tween’s life, just five years after its invention. But can a tablet be a guilt-free baby sitter?

I found out, by putting the latest youth-targeted tablets to the test.

A survey released Tuesday by the nonprofit family advocacy group Common Sense Mediafinds Americans age 8 to 12 spend an average of an hour each day using a tablet. Add to that the time these children spend playing games and videos on smartphones and iPods, and it eclipses even the time they spend in front of a TV. Call them Generation Touchscreen.

The tablet transition is stressing out moms and dads. “Parents like to make themselves feel guilty,” says Common Sense’s research director Michael Robb. They fret about limiting tablet screen time, which is harder to monitor than TVs used in common rooms. And some families share one iPad that mixes grown-up apps and open Web browsers with child-appropriate fare. A common nightmare begins, “Junior just Googled what?”

Tablets have the potential to turn children into zombies, but there’s evidence touch screens can help develop young minds, too. It requires a holistic view: exposure to the right apps, in the right amount, for each child’s needs.

Three new tablets are brushing up on their electronic baby sitting skills. The Amazon Fire Kids EditionLeapFrog Epic and Fuhu Nabi Elev-8 come not just with protective covers but walled gardens of content—parents aren’t left having to figure everything out for themselves. These are also full-fledged Android tablets—not toys.

You may wonder: Why not just an iPad? They’re great, but much more expensive and you have to provide your own child-proofing. iPads don’t have a dedicated child mode, though there are steps you can take to lock them down.

For any touch screen in your child’s hands, I’ve pulled together a few basic rules for the road:

• Set screen-time rules. Limits, imposed via parental settings, can help when screen time becomes a detriment to other healthy activity, though it’s still important for children to learn how to self-regulate. “Sanity, not censorship,” is the right philosophy, says Mr. Robb.

• Not all screen time is created equal. Passive consumption is still the most common activity for tweens on touch-screen devices. Playing games is almost tied. Yet tablets have largely untapped potential for creation, with cameras and drawing tools.

• Monitor what children are using, even among the so-called educational apps. Parents can tap resources like Common Sense’s ratings of 25,000 products. The children’s tablets do some vetting, but it isn’t a replacement for conversations with children about what media is worth their time.

• Stay away from in-app purchases. They’re used by many seemingly “free” games to encourage your pint-sized Angry Birds addict to rack up charges. All three children’s tablets ban them, at least on apps that come preinstalled or with a subscription.

• Children may not be ready to use the open Web, YouTube and social networks without parental guidance. These tablets all restrict access to approved sites, and there are settings for iPads and others to do the same.

I enlisted junior testers named Olive and Peter to help me evaluate how well the LeapFrog, Amazon and Fuhu tablets mix fun with parent-approved activity. Just like adults, children can spot cheap hardware a mile away, and get frustrated by clunky interfaces. We found there’s much that separates these devices, from screen quality to educational content. Think of each as a different kind of after-school program.

LeapFrog Epic

Price: $140, plus $2 to $20 for apps

Age: 3 to 9

Who it’s for: Families looking to blend learning with fun, not watch “Frozen” on repeat.

Who chooses what’s included: LeapFrog has a team, led by education Ph.D. Jody ShermanLeVos, that creates LeapFrog’s own educational apps and selects other educational and entertainment content.

Likes: The Epic was our crew’s favorite, a big improvement over LeapFrog’s earlier LeapPad tablets. The Epic personalizes itself for each child, based on age and grade, and tracks her progress across apps so it can level up the educational challenge as she grows.

Most of the available apps and videos skillfully mix the boring stuff (doing math) with fun (making cartoon chickens run around). Children earn tokens from some apps to spend on virtual goods, and parents get updates on how they’re doing.

My testers raved about the Epic’s home screen, which they could customize with stickers and backdrops.

Dislikes: About 20 apps come included, but the Epic puts an app store at the top of the screen, encouraging children to ask Daddy to buy more. Some apps even contain ads for other apps.

The Epic store has high-quality material, but the selection is limited. To get apps like Minecraft and Netflix, parents have to manually install Amazon’s Appstore.

The child-safe Web browser left my testers a little frustrated because it only includes access to about 20 sites and a few thousand online videos. You can add to the list, but I still couldn’t play YouTube videos like “Gangnam Style.”

The Epic still uses a cheaper screen technology that can be hard to view from certain angles.

Amazon Fire Kids Edition

Price: $100, including one year of the FreeTime Unlimited library of apps, videos and e-books (normally $5 per month)

Age: 3 to 10

Who it’s for: Families who want a media-consumption tablet, or have already invested in Amazon video and books.

Who chooses what’s included: Amazon employees filter the FreeTime library based on what’s popular and then refine based on guidelines from Common Sense Media.

Likes: This device is Amazon’s jaw-droppingly inexpensive $50 Fire tablet dressed up with a thick bumper and child-friendly software. The Kids Edition includes a two-year replacement guarantee if the tablet cracks or ends up in the pool.

The FreeTime Unlimited library is all about abundance: more than 10,000 apps, videos and e-books from Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids and others. Children get to choose without having to keep asking permission, but parents can set limits based on time or goals. For example, no videos until there’s been 30 minutes of learning.

There’s no store to tempt children. Parents can buy apps or media and share access to the child’s tablet. A forthcoming Web browser promises over 20,000 safe sites and YouTube videos, but it wasn’t ready to test.

Dislikes: The Fire Kids Edition doesn’t have the same learning focus as rivals. Its software doesn’t track a child’s performance across multiple apps to reach educational goals.

While the FreeTime Unlimited selection is broad, it doesn’t necessarily include top-tier shows, movies and apps—parents will have to pay extra for “The Lego Movie.”

The FreeTime apps all need to be downloaded, which initially annoyed my testers. FreeTime videos require a live Internet connection, only ones you buy can be stored.

Fuhu Nabi Elev-8

Price: $170, including 6 months of Nabi Pass service (normally $5 month)

Age: 6 to 9 (and older)

Who it’s for: Families looking for an educational supplement, or a full-powered tablet that can grow with a child.

Who chooses what’s included: Fuhu has one team that created its own Wings education apps, and another that curates other content from Disney, Discovery, National Geographic and others.

Likes: The Elev-8 looks and acts more like an iPad, with a bright 8-inch HD screen and snappy processor. You can also buy apps and movies from Google Play.

The Wings learning apps teach elements of the Common Core. The Elev-8’s parental controls allow you to set time for individual apps, or dole out time with fun apps for completing educational tasks. If your idea of a successful children’s tablet is something closer to tutoring, this is the one for you.

My testers liked that the Elev-8 includes functional apps such as chores and calendars, as well as drawing and animating.

Dislikes: I found the Elev-8’s multi-screen interface to be confusing, but my child testers didn’t seem to mind. I also encountered a number of apparent bugs. (Fuhu says a parental login request appearing when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen is caused by an Android feature the company can’t alter.)

In addition to the Nabi Pass library, children can use allowance “coins” to buy apps and movies in the Treasure Box. This could lead to begging.

The Elev-8 requires a special cable that isn’t likely to match any others you already have around the house. (Fuhu said it chose a larger plug to be more child-friendly.)

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com

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