Are You Done Yet? How Parents Can Help Their Easily Distracted Child

If your child is easily distracted and struggles to stay focused and finish homework, you are probably a frustrated parent! For some students, homework that should take 45 minutes ends up consuming two hours regardless of a parent’s cajoling and handholding. The good news is there is a better way to help these students.


Recognize the Consistently Inconsistent Pattern

One frustrating aspect of parenting easily distractible children (whether they’re hyperactive, inattentive, or a bit of both) is that they are consistently inconsistent. Some days they toil like a well-oiled machine. Other days they are like an old out-of-sync grandfather clock. Chil­dren with attention difficulties really want to sustain focus, but no matter how hard they try, they can’t always maintain it. Punishing inattentive behavior doesn’t work. Through the use of positive reinforcement and a few creative ideas, you can help your distracted child improve focus and get his work done.


Make a Mountain a Molehill

Depending on the age of your child, he may only be able to focus well for 20 minutes at a time. Often, the time you spend refocusing his efforts after 20 minutes may be better spent giving him a break so he can recharge and begin again. This can be done in two ways – by task or time.

By task – Fold a worksheet in half.  Instruct your child to do the top half, show it to you, and then finish the second half. Allow him to choose the problems or questions he wants to do first. When he’s done with half of them, go on to the rest.

By length of time – Set the timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Tell your child, “Work as hard as you can for this time. When the timer goes off, you can daydream or play for 5 minutes.” Another option is to set the timer for a length of time for which you absolutely know he’ll be successful. When he succeeds, lengthen the span by a minute.


Keep a Homework Log

Teachers may be unaware that homework is so problematic because they only see the final, corrected product, not the inordinate amount of effort behind it. For at least one week, jot down the date and length of homework. You may also want to document any rea­sons you see for your child’s homework struggles. Meet with the teacher and share the information you’ve re­corded. Ask for suggestions to help your child accomplish homework tasks. Remember, students should be spending about 10 minutes per grade level on homework per night.


Let Her Fidget

Various studies have shown that distractible students can actually be more attentive when they are given something to hold or touch. A few good options are the Tangle Junior (, Wikki Stix (, or even a simple stress ball. By simply manipulating these toys in their hands, students are better able to focus.


Insist On Exercise – The Miracle Drug

Aerobic exercise almost immediately elevates the chemicals in the brain that increase attention and focus. These chemicals act a bit like Ritalin or other medications used to treat ADHD.  With frequent aerobic exercise, a distractible student can improve his ability to learn, so be sure to encourage your child to get out and exercise regularly.

With a few of these strategies, your child will be on the road to focusing and finishing in no time at all!



Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring and Test Prep in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make learning less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at or

3rd Graders Held Back? And Parents Don’t Have A Say? 4 States Are Considering It

Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Colorado are considering legislation that would make students repeat 3rd grade if they can’t pass state reading exams. This has sparked a debate over whether retaining students actually boosts their achievement or simply increases the odds that they will drop out. From kindergarten through 2nd grade, parents could still insist that their child be promoted, but at 3rd grade the school would have the final say. Similar bills have been passed in Oklahoma, Arizona, Indiana, and Florida, but the results are hard to read.


Proponents point to Florida, which has had 3rd grade retention in place since 2001. Reading scores have been boosted as much as 41% in some cases. The first year, 13% of Florida’s 3rd graders were held back. Since then, the number is down to 6% and Florida has climbed back up to the national average in 4th grade literacy. Some say there’s no way to know that retention was the reason for the boost, and that the situation is far more complicated. Arizona, for example, hasn’t seen any improvement since passing 3rd grade retention.

Opponents of the bill draw attention to a study in Chicago schools in the 1990’s. Tens of thousands of students were held back for deficiency in math and reading. Years later, the students who were retained showed no improvement over students with the same academic problems who were promoted instead. Nationwide, our reading scores haven’t budged in 2 decades, despite gains in math, and only one third of American schoolchildren passed the most recent national reading exam.


Many see 3rd grade as the crucial year for reading. A study by the Annie E. Casey foundation found that students who don’t read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times as likely to drop out of school. An important question to ask is, which is more damaging to a child’s self esteem: being held back, or being illiterate? The bills are meeting stiff resistance in their state legislatures, and we will have to see what comes of it. What do you think? We’d love to hear your opinion. Be sure to leave your comments below!


For more info, check out the following articles:


Wall Street Journal


Sioux City Journal


Fox News


Ann Dolin, M.Ed. is the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring ( and is the Author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.

What Obama Said Last Week Could Change Our Classrooms

Have you noticed that so much of the instruction in our kids’ classrooms revolves around getting students to pass state tests? It seems that requisition of facts, and not critical thinking and creativity, is the name of the game. That’s all about to change.


On February 9th, President Obama announced that ten states would be granted waivers excluding their students from No Child Left Behind’s national testing mandates. Twenty eight states have applied for waivers so far (Virginia being one of them) and there are more to come.


Most agree that the initial intentions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were good and genuine. The idea was that though mandating national standards, the quality of education would rise, and by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, all American students would have reached a level of “proficient or better” in reading and math. The bill, however, had unforeseen consequences:


  • Classroom teaching became all about the test.
  • States that could not pass the test responded by watering the test down to make it easier for students.
  • Classes which weren’t tested were put on the back burner. For example, in Virginia science is not tested on the 4th grade SOL’s, so the class was played down in favor of tested material. Also, the world history SOL didn’t cover Chinese history, so some classrooms spend as little as one day on it.
  • A wave of cheating by students (and even teachers!) desperate to meet testing standards.
  • Creativity was largely squeezed out of the classroom, and teachers had little room to adapt the material for their particular students.


Now, on the eve of the NCLB’s benchmark goals in the 2013-2014 school year, the Obama administration has decided to pull the plug. States will craft their own testing plans and be granted waivers by the Department of Education until all states are exempted and NCLB is retired. Here’s what we can expect to see in our schools in the future:


  • Less standardized testing.
  • Less classroom focus on teaching to a test.
  • More flexibility for states to focus on their unique needs. For example, Mississippi can focus on graduation rates, and Virginia can focus on getting kids college-ready.


The hope is that in time we can train American students to be critical thinkers and risk takers, not robotic memorization machines. National standards will remain in place for the time being, but as more waivers are granted, we may see the biggest change in American academics since No Child Left Behind was implemented 11 years ago.

For more info, check out this LA Times article and let us know what you think in the comments section below!


Ann Dolin, M.Ed. is the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring ( and is the Author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.

EC Success Stories: Charlie Rosas

From El Salvador to Stanford


Here at Educational Connections, we’ve been blessed to be a part of the lives of some truly incredible students over the past 14 years. We’ve taught children with disabilities how to read, helped young adults get into colleges they had never dreamed of, and inspired countless students to realize their full academic potential. Every once in a while, a student comes along who teaches us more than we teach him. This week’s success profile is on EC student Charlie Rosas, who went from not knowing a single word of English to turning down Harvard.


The Rosas family immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. Charlie was born in Los Angeles, and was raised in an entirely Spanish speaking community. “When we moved away to Virginia, I was determined to learn English,” says Charlie. “My family had a lot of paperwork to do, and I wanted more than anything to help them… There’s a funny picture of me at age eight trying to help my aunt fill out a job application.” To help Charlie with his English, the Rosas family turned to Educational Connections. Charlie was tutored personally by EC president Ann Dolin, who volunteered for the position free of charge. “After my tutoring with EC, I was reading on a 5th grade level in the 2nd grade. Ann has always been a big influence for me. She’s been in touch ever since… I never thought I’d make it this far.”


Charlie’s new-found skills proved invaluable a few years later when his family’s home was foreclosed upon. With his father working two jobs as a cook and a maintenance worker – on four hours of sleep – and his mother working full time as a nanny, Charlie took it upon himself to investigate their legal options. Charlie took on the role of the family attorney and steered them through the grueling legal process. Although the Rosas ultimately lost their home, Charlie proved himself to be an endless well of hard work, encouragement, and determination. Little did he know, the next test would far surpass the last.


Shortly after, tragedy struck again as Charlie’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Charlie sprung into action, working with doctors and insurance companies to ensure his mother the best care possible. Charlie navigated the diagnostic and treatment process for his family when others would have lost hope. He did everything in his power to help his family – from relentlessly tracking down doctors for second opinions to filling out mountains of paperwork. His courage and confidence is truly humbling. With some help from a connection through EC, Charlie was able to get in touch with one of the best reconstructive surgeons in the DC area, who took on Charlie’s mother as a patient even though he was at capacity.


Somehow, in spite of all this, Charlie was able to maintain a rigorous high school schedule, taking as many AP classes as possible and maintaining a 4.4 GPA. Educational Connections was able to help Charlie and his sister, who has a significant learning disability, with scholarships and college placement – free of charge. “I can’t tell you how much that motivated her. It meant so much to us,” says Charlie. Despite getting into Harvard, Charlie turned it down for a full ride at Stanford, where he is currently studying political science.


Clearly, here at Educational Connections we only had a minor part to play in Charlie’s story, but he is effusive in his praise nonetheless. “I would recommend EC to anyone. They helped me address exactly what my issues were. Once they were resolved everything became faster and easier… Tutoring helped me believe in myself. It gave me skills that I definitely needed down the road. I can’t thank EC enough.” It is both humbling and inspiring to work with students like Charlie, and an honor to be a part of his life here at Educational Connections.

The 4 Kinds of “Careless Errors” and How to Fix Them

We get a lot of questions about careless errors from parents, tutors, and students alike. In my experience, these are the four most common careless errors I’ve come across along with some effective, field-tested solutions for you to try:


1) Dropping Negative Signs – This can also mean switching the sign mid problem or copying down the wrong sign at the start. Lots of kids have this problem, and this is the only permanent solution I’ve found:

  • Have the student say out loud “positive” or “negative” in front of each number. This will seem bothersome at first but it absolutely works if you’re persistent.
  • So instead of “12 divided by 4,” have them say “positive 12 divided by positive 4”
  • This links the sign to the number in the child’s mind, and trains the brain to not separate the two. The result is that sign and number are permanently linked in a student’s internal monologue, which is the ultimate goal here and the only chance at a long term solution.

2) Not copying problems correctly, or not reading directions – The key here is to not be negative or judgmental. Students learn when they are comfortable and when behavior is encouraged positively. Here’s what to do:

  • Draw a box in the top right corner of the page. Each time the student remembers to read the directions, or double check what she has copied, tell her to give herself +1 point (or a tally) in the box.
  • The first few times all you have to say is, “Did you remember to double check so you can get a point?” and the usual response is along the lines of, “Oh yeah, lemme check.” This is so much more effective than “Hey, you forgot again. Stop that,” for this very reason:
  • Something positive is being associated with the behavior. If you can create a comfortable scenario where a child will want to double check his work, it will be fixed faster than you think.

3) Too much (or incorrect) mental math – Some students can’t wait for the chance to use their calculators, but I’ve worked with many students who feel the need to do as much work as possible in their heads, even difficult multi-step problems. This can come from the misconception that being able to do problems in your head means you are smarter, or that it’s expected of them. Some just don’t want to use up paper!

  • If I notice a heavy reliance on mental math, I make a deal with the student up front. I’ll say “Looks good so far, but if you make a mistake in your head you have to write it out.”
  • The student immediately becomes more careful, because she knows she will have to write it out if she makes a mistake. More importantly, it makes her responsible for the work.
  • Now, instead of, “He’s making me write it out,” it becomes, “I’m writing it out because I made a mistake and that was my fault.” This simple re-framing makes a huge difference.

4) Squeezing too much work into a small space – This happens frequently on math tests, especially for younger students learning multiplication. They’ll try to crunch everything into the space provided, and the work gets jumbled and confused.

  • Give the student graph paper, draw lines on his paper, or tell the student to flip the page over for more space.
  • Tell them know that a piece of paper costs about two hundredths of a penny! They can use as much as they need.
  • Keeping numbers separate and letting the student know it’s OK to use lots of room is a quick fix for a lot of students, and it means a lot more points on homework and tests.

I’ve been using these strategies in the field for the past few years with great success. Give them a shot, we’d love to hear your results!

Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder of Educational Connections Tutoring in Fairfax and Bethesda. Her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, she offers proven solutions to help make homework less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at

Why won’t my child ask for help in class?

Tactics parents should avoid, and 3 powerful strategies to turn your child into a confident learner.

“My child won’t raise her hand in class! If she just asked her teacher for help, she wouldn’t be so frustrated with her homework.” If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Asking for help is not easy for many bright, young students, especially in front of peers. The result can be long, disheartening homework sessions at night, or low test scores and a loss of self esteem down the road. The good news is, there are a few strategies which can make a huge difference:

  • Don’t Scold or Interrogate.

    • “Why didn’t you ask for help?” is a perfectly reasonable question, but it doesn’t teach your child the skills she needs to solve the problem.

    • The more uncomfortable or embarrassed a child feels, the less likely she is to have the confidence to ask for help from a parent or teacher when she has a problem.

Try these instead:

  • Role-play with your child to practice approaching a teacher for help.

    • Start by playing the role of the student, with your child playing the role of the teacher, and then switch.

    • Works especially well with young children.

    • Walking through what it’s like to ask for help shows your child that it’s nowhere near as stressful as they thought it would be, and they will start to realize that their teachers are happy to help.

  • Show them how to write an email to a teacher.

    • Model the email yourself first, but involve your child in the process.

    • Many older students already feel secure and familiar with the medium.

    • For hesitant students, avoids a lot of the stress and social pressures of a face-to-face interaction at school.

  • Location can make a big difference.

    • After school study halls aren’t the best environments for learning. With a mob of students asking for help, the child’s needs may not be addressed properly.

    • Try to arrange a teacher meet-up away from peers in a more relaxed environment. Comfort is an enormous factor in learning and problem solving.

Ultimately, one-on-one instruction is ideal. Whether it is with a teacher, a parent, or a tutor, one-on-one education is the best possible learning situation. It provides more opportunity for positive reinforcement and personalized, specific instruction in a relaxed environment. One-on-one instruction is the best, most comfortable way to learn for many students and generally leads to an academic career of confident problem solving and strong report cards. If you can make the time, the benefits can be academically life-changing for a child.

Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder of Educational Connections Tutoring in Fairfax and Bethesda. Her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, she offers proven solutions to help make homework less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at

Talk So Your Kids Will Listen

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents facing all kinds of homework and study issues.  Many have been successful in dealing with these issues, but others have not.

Those who have made the greatest progress have done two things:  They have opened up lines of communication within their household and they have learned to talk in a manner that their child will listen to regarding their expectations.


The Power of Effective Praise

So often, real progress begins when parents learn how to praise their kids successfully.  Praise is an especially powerful tool when it comes to homework, but many parents get it wrong.  Research shows that kids who are praised for effort rather than intelligence develop the motivation to keep trying — an important determinant of success and one the child can influence.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading expert in motivation, conducted an oft-cited experiment on the effects of praise on 400 fifth graders.  One at a time, the children were given a fairly easy non-verbal IQ test.  The children were divided into two groups: Some were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) and the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”).    Later in the testing session, the same children were given a choice of tests — a more difficult test than the first test which they would learn a great deal from, or an easy one very similar to the first one.


Praising Effort Pays Off

Ninety percent of the students commended for their effort chose the more difficult test.  The majority of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy test.  Why did this happen?  Dr. Dweck said, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart and don’t risk making mistakes.”


Be Specific

Other studies have demonstrated that specific praise is far more effective than generalized acclaim.  When words are too general, children disregard their parents’ praise.   Hence, rather than saying “Good job on that paper!” to reinforce good behavior, try “I liked the way you transitioned from your first point to the second”.   Instead of “I’m so proud of you” to bolster self-esteem, say “You went back to check your work.  That extra step was a great idea.”


Use a 2:1 Ratio

One last thought about praise – use it in a 2:1 ratio when you wish to suggest ways to improve on an effort.   In other words, begin with praise, make your suggestion, end with praise.


Eliminate Idle Threats

Helping your child with homework can bring out the worst in the best parents.  How many times have you wanted to say, “I’ve had it with you!  You’re grounded for the rest of the month.”   But idle threats made out of pure frustration are damaging to kids and add to our burden of parental guilt.  They also serious undermine a parent’s credibility.    What is needed to counter negative habits are rules that you apply consistently.  For example, if your rule is no video games until homework is done, institute a reward (games after work is complete) and a consequence (no games for the rest of the day) if the child plays the game before his work is done.   In order to make this work, the rule must be applied consistently every day.  When you demonstrate that you mean what you say, your child will beg and plead a whole lot less.


Give a Warning Before Consequences

Giving a child a warning before enforcing a consequence allows him to correct his behavior.  Be calm and matter of fact.  “This is your warning.  If you continue to doodle instead of completing your worksheet, bedtime is 8:45 instead of 9 pm.”  Say no more.  If you child responds after one warning, you’re golden.  Some children need two or three.  In advance, agree to a set number of warnings to help get your child back on track. Stick to that number.  State that you are giving a warning then walk away.  At any point when you see he is doing the right thing praise his effort.   Soon the need for repeating warnings should go away.


Try It for 21 Days

Even the smallest changes in the way you talk to your children can have huge effects.  For two days make a conscious effort to praise, eliminate idle threats and give warnings.  If you notice a positive impact in how your children respond to you, you’re on the right track.  Keep going.  The old adage “it takes 21 days to change a habit” is backed by research.  After three weeks, your efforts will pay off in big ways and a good habit in how you communicate with your kids will be established.

Our 5 Most Popular Articles and 2 Most Viewed Videos of 2011

Some topics really seem to strike a chord with parents. These articles appeared in past newsletters and received a big response from our readers.

  • 5 Homework Tips Every Parent Must Know
  • Have a Math Test? 6 Proven Solutions to Study Smarter
  • Parenting Styles and Why They Matter
  • Get Organized with the Latest Smart Phone Apps
  • Why is Learning Style So Important and How Can Kids Use it to Their Advantage?

Read these articles and view our top two 90-second videos:

  • Get Your Child Organized for School Success
  • The Right Words Can Be a Powerful Motivator

Should Parents Go Online to Check Their Kids’ Grades and Homework?

The iconic overstuffed student’s backpack is quickly becoming a relic of the past and as a result, the way parents oversee their children’s progress in school will never be the same.

Paperless Schools

With an estimated four out of five K-12 schools having some sort of presence on the internet, teachers are quickly turning to paperless web portals with names like Edline, Blackboard, Homelink and MyBackPack to make assignments, provide virtual handouts and communicate with parents.  The advantages to students and parents alike are many.  Students no longer have to retrieve reams loose pages from their backpacks.  And instead of relying on handouts and notices hand-carried by their children, parents now have a direct line of communications with the school staff.


The Dark Side to Portals

There is, however, a dark side to these portals.  The power of this technology gives parents the ability to tap into their child’s account, track assignments and take day-to-day control of when and how their children do their daily homework. I believe a certain amount of hovering is appropriate for elementary school student.  But as tempting as it may be parents to for access the portal and oversee the completion of homework each week, parents of middle school and high school students must largely resist this impulse. The most precious gift a parent can give to their child is the ability to confidently navigate life independently.


Going Online to Hover

I was taken aback recently to learn that a parent I work with in my tutoring practice taps into 16-year-old son’s school portal each day and prints out his assignments so they will be before him when he gets home from school.  When asked why, she responded, “If I didn’t he would never do them.”  I worry about this student once he goes to college because he has never developed the organizational and time management skills he will soon need for success.


What is the proper role for a parent in this age of school internet portals in overseeing the completion of homework and projects and studying for tests?   Here’s what I recommend:


  • Choice of System:  Expect that your student have a system in place to track assignments, projects, and dates of quizzes and tests.   It should be up to the student to determine which system works best for her.  Some students find that apps that run on smartphones or tablets are ideal for this application where they are permitted. Others prefer the old-fashioned assignment notebook.


  • Trust but Verify:  Trust that your child has completed his daily assignments and planned out those that are long-term, but be wise enough to verify.  This means that you may want to cross-reference what he says he has for homework against what is documented in the portal.  “Trust but verify” shouldn’t be daily, but should be used when a part has that uneasy feeling that work has gone undone.


  • Weekly Meetings:  Something that works well for many parents is to schedule a regular meeting with your student Sunday after dinner where they can update you on her progress during the past week and when and their plans for the week ahead.   Your student should be able to easily rattle off what is to be done if their assignment book and planner is up to date.  If he can’t maybe he needs some extra support.


In the end, portals are highly effective means of keeping track of assignments, tests, and other communication.  They should be used primarily by students, not by parents who insist on going online to hover.  And if you find yourself in a power struggle over homework, consider enlisting the help of one of our top tutors to help!

Posted by Ann Dolin, M.Ed.

This Season’s Best Student Stocking Stuffers

Thinking of a last-minute gift that will make learning fun? Take a look at our recommendations for stuffing your kid’s stocking with gifts that will be both popular and educational.

E-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook – All ages
E-readers are perfect for students of all ages. They have internal dictionaries that make learning new vocabulary words a breeze and students can highlight text, bookmark pages, and take notes with the click of a button. Reluctant readers will often find themselves caught up in the novelty of reading on an electronic device while struggling readers will love the large font and narrow margins options.

A subscription to Time for Kids – Grades K to 6
Getting your child involved in the world is fun with this interactive news source. Time Magazine for Kids features articles written not only for kids, but by kids. Both the online and print format are filled with timely, appropriately written news articles that will both inform your child and spark dinner time conversation. Available in four age groups: K-1, 2, 3-4, and 5-6.

Livescribe Pen – Grades 6 to College
If your child wants to be a more efficient note taker, here’s the solution! With the Echo™ smartpen from Livescribe, students can record everything they hear, say and write, while linking their audio recordings to their notes. They can quickly replay audio from their Livescribe paper, a computer, or a mobile device –all with a simple tap on the handwritten notes. It’s never been easier to take notes and stay organized.

A Personalized Journal – All ages
Even if your child isn’t keen on writing, starting a dialogue journal with them, in which you and your student respond to each other and share your thoughts, is a great way for kids to think of writing as a relaxing, pleasant experience and opens the lines of communication between you and your child. Older kids may find a personal journal to be a way to wind down from the demands of the school day.

Perplexors Logic Puzzle Books – Grades 3 and Up
Going on a long car or plane trip this holiday season? Need activities to keep your kids entertained while on holiday break from school? These challenging Perplexors build logic skills and student confidence with a new scenario on each page.

And finally…A Great Private Tutor!
Thinking of getting some help for your child next semester? Whether your child could benefit from reading, writing, or just math tutoring, don’t wait until the New Year to arrange it! Now is the time to contact the Educational Connections office to ensure you will find a tutor who fits your child’s learning style and academic needs.

No matter which gifts you choose to give this year, Educational Connections wishes you and your family a very happy holiday season!