13 Tips for Creating Your Own Website with Blog

13 Steps for Creating Your Own Website

While there are a lot of companies out there that can create a website for you (like my sister Andrea at Curly Host), there are many benefits of creating your website yourself…especially if you don’t have much of a budget. Yes, it is quite a bit of work at first, but by creating your own website, you’ll be able to test out a variety of ideas, customize everything to your specific needs, and manage updates according to your schedule.

I’m not claiming to be the guru of all areas of web development here, but I have learned A LOT about what to do (and what not to do) when it comes to creating my own website. I started out just wanting a platform to blog about motherhood with a specific vision for my organization, and now I’m actually making some money with Amazon Associates and with my Embracing Motherhood Shop.

So without further adieu, here are my 13 steps for starting your own website.

1. Brainstorm Ideas

Grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and just start creating a mind map of all words that you would use to describe your website. (You could also use a mind mapping application like this.) Don’t worry about organizing your ideas at this point, just free associate the first words that pop into your brain when you think of your website.

For me, my initial brainstorming web included words like: pregnancy, birth, natural birth, healthy food, nutrition, recipes, food science, fitness, teaching, parenting, lesson ideas, homeschool, young children, stay at home mom, and so on.

2. Find Your Niche

Once you have a broad idea of where you’d like to go, find some other websites or blogs out there that are covering the topics that you are hoping to explore. I enjoyed finding several mothering, nutrition, and education websites and following them on social media to get their latest content. I would read their latest blogs, peruse their sites, notice things that I liked and didn’t, and thought about how I would try to define myself in my own way.

You will be constantly honing your writing style and finding your voice as you write. It is not something that will happen overnight. If you look at some of the earlier blogs I’ve written (mainly about health and nutrition), you’ll notice that my voice and style are different than they are now. Once I started getting an audience, getting feedback from others, and seeing my content live, I was able to see what things were working better than others. I learned how to create a certain flow that people could skim and scan through by adding quotes, headlines, lists, numbers, bolded and italicized text, and images so that a reader could get the general idea without reading every word.

3. Come Up With a Name

Now that you’ve brainstormed some ideas and done your research, it’s time to start thinking about a name. Same as the original brainstorming session, get a piece of paper and a pencil and just start writing down every possible name you can think of, no matter how crazy or silly, just get it out there. I think it’s a good idea for your name to be a pretty obvious representation of what you want to write about, but you can just go ahead and make up a new word too. Basically, you’re looking for something short, simple, easy to share with someone verbally, and something that has a nice ring to it.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few favorite names, start doing a Google search to see what comes up. After I had my heart set on Embracing Motherhood, I discovered that the domain name embracingmotherhood.com was only available if I wanted to spend $4,888 so I did what you really shouldn’t do, I used a hyphen…embracing-motherhood.com.

LeanDomainSearch is a great way to brainstorm ideas with available domain names. Once you have a name you think you’d like, run it through Domainr to see if it’s available. Also check out social media platforms like FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter to see if your name is already being used. *Check out some more great tips for coming up with a name here and here.

4. Purchase Your Domain and Hosting

Now, because my sister is helping me out, she helped me buy my domain name and does my hosting for me. She uses a company called BlueHost. This company is great, and I would recommend going with the plus package that gives you unlimited storage and will run you $5.95/mo. When you sign up for hosting, it will walk you through registering your domain name as well (for free). For an extra $2.99/mo. you can get Site Backup Pro that automatically creates a daily backup copy of your entire site. If you’re creating a lot of content, this is a good idea.

5. Design a Logo

This might be something that you want to save for later, but I enjoyed getting mine done early on. My sister Andrea knows a freelance artist who helped me design my logo, but there are many different logo makers online. This one is pretty good and will cost you from $20-$100 and this one is pretty great too and will only cost you $39. (Beware, many sites that claim “free logo design” will actually make you pay for the high-res image.)

As you pick a logo, keep your color scheme in mind. Because I was wearing a purple shirt in the profile picture I chose, I ended up using purple for my main color. Then I used green as my accent and went with a rainbow pattern of colors because I like rainbows! I hope to keep working on my design in the future, but right now I’m more focused on content. 🙂

6. WordPress

I recommend going with WordPress.org over WordPress.com. Once you secure your domain and hosting, you can download WordPress and get started. They have some free themes ready to go, but after checking out many many different themes, my sister highly recommended going with Enfold for $59. This is what I use, and I love it! Everything is drag and drop and there is a great online support forum. (Just log in with your WordPress info and search for your question or write a new one. I have used this many times, and always gotten excellent support.)

If you go with WordPress.com, it is free and a one stop shop for your basic blog, but only if you plan on hosting less than 3 GB of data ($99/year for unlimited data) and you’re not allowed to connect to affiliate’s programs like Amazon Associates and have very little options in terms of design.

There are two ways you can get familiar with WordPress. You can just dive in (like I did), and look online when you have questions (just do a very specific Google search). Or, you can check out this WordPress for Beginners Blog or watch this great tutorial series to learn everything you’ll need to know before or while you’re playing around with your own site.

*You can also check out Squarespace (7 pages for $12/month), Webflow (20 pages for $20/month), Weebly ($8/mo. for unlimited pages or free with limited services), or a free blogging platform like Tumblr or Blogger.

7. Customizing

Once you get your theme, you’ll want to customize it to work for you. This part can seem really overwhelming and is probably where you’ll need to do the most amount of learning/research, so you might want to skip this step and come back to this later.

  1. Hide Your Site: As you’re building your site, you might want to hide it from search engines. To do this, go to the “Settings” option on the left toolbar, select “Reading”, and the click on the box that says, “Discourage search engines from indexing this site”. You might also want to install a plug-in like this that will give a “Coming Soon” message.
  2. Theme Options: On the left toolbar, you’ll see a gear shaped icon with the name of your site. You will want to go here first and click on every option to set things up and get familiar with what you can do. When I was learning about WordPress, I spent a lot of time here changing one thing at a time, looking at things live (on the top toolbar, click on your site name with the home icon, and click “Visit Site”), and tweaking it until I liked what I had. This is where you’ll add your logo, set up your social media icons.
  3. Widgets: On the left toolbar, under “Appearance”, you’ll find “Widgets” (along with themes, menu, etc.). Widgets are a great way to customize the look of your blog. For my sidebar widget, I have a search tool, my picture, my affiliate’s disclosure, a subscribe widget, popular posts, and recent posts. In my footer widgets, I have four columns for my social media profiles.
  4. Plug-ins: Whenever you want to add something specific to your site, there’s a plug-in for that. Just like with everything else, you’ll want to play around with different plug-ins to see what you like/don’t like. *Now, don’t get crazy with the plug-ins, sometimes they can be the reason your site starts acting crazy, and you’ll have to deactivate them one at a time to figure out the problem. Here are the plug-ins I love:
    1. Askimet: Stops spam
    2. Broken Link Checker: Tells you on your dashboard page where all of your broken links are
    3. Pinterest Pin It Button: I always pin my own articles and have gotten a lot of hits this way.
    4. Print Friendly and PDF: Provides a button that allows users to easily print your blogs.
    5. Stop Spammers Spam Control: Prevents spammers from leaving comments
    6. Woocommerce: What I used to build my Embracing Motherhood Shop

7. Organizing

If you’re like me, you’ll want to have a framework of organization for your content before getting started. It’s a bit time consuming to do this on the front end, and so you may just want to write 20-30 blogs or build your content before you worry about organization, but then you’ll have to go back to each blog to add categories, etc. So, here’s what I recommend, but as with everything, you have to do what works for you.

  1. Create Pages: You’ll first of all want a home page (some people like their blog to be their home page, but not me, it feels too random). Then create pages for all of your main ideas and link them to your home page. (Mine are: Home, All Blogs, Parenting, Teaching, Mom Talk, Health, How To, Guest Bloggers, Etsy, and Shop) Start by using the “Advanced Layout Editor” to create a “Page Template”. Basically, everything needs to be in a layout box, then you can put a “Text Box” (under “Content Elements”) inside of a layout box to create a header. Then, you can add a “Magazine” or “Blog Post” layout to put under that and it will automatically put all blogs with a matching category there. Watch this tutorial to learn more about creating pages.
  2. Create Categories: These are how you’ll organize your blogs. Under “Posts” on the left toolbar, select “Categories” and just create categories for all of your main ideas. You can also create subcategories by selecting a “Parent”, but I wouldn’t recommend doing this at first. Now, when you write your blogs, just select which category they belong in and you can sort them to the appropriate pages.
  3. Create a Menu: Now that you have your main pages, you can organize them into a menu. Under “Appearance”on the left toolbar, choose “Menu”. There, you can add what pages will be on your main menu.
  4. Write Some Content: Once you have a general layout, you can start writing some posts! It may take awhile to find your voice and your writing style, but don’t worry about that at first, just start getting some content out there so you can see how everything works together.

8. Adding Images

When I first started writing a blog, I was so sad that I couldn’t just do a Google image search and use whatever photos I wanted. 🙁 How easy would that be??? But thanks to Creative Commons, there are lots of free works available to use.

  1. Use Your Own Pictures: It can be so tempting to buy stock photos, but using pictures that you have taken gives your blog a much more personal touch, and it won’t cost you any money!
  2. Attribution: When you use someone else’s photo, even if it’s “Creative Commons”, you should give attribution according to the specifications of the image. If I use an image within my blog, I’ll put the attribution right under the photo saying something like: Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pearson Scott Foresman, 2008. I’ll also link my photo to the original source. You can also credit the image source at the end of your blog. Here’s a good article with more information about giving image credits.
  3. Canva: Canva is a very simple photo editing program that allows you to custom design images with text. This is what I use to create my featured images for my blogs (845 x 321 pixels are the dimensions you want for a featured blog image with sidebar). I like it because there are suggested dimensions for a variety of social media and other outlets many basic templates available, simple tools for adding text, and basic tools for modifying your image. You can even search for a particular image and purchase it for $1.
  4. Photo Pin: Here, you can search millions of Creative Commons photos and easily add them to your blog posts. A photo attribution link is provided for each image.
  5. Flickr: Start by clicking on “Explore” and then search for the type of image you’re looking for. Look at the image description to see if it is “Creative Commons” or free to use, if so, attribute the image according to the author’s request.
  6. Wikimedia Commons: This is my favorite place to go for free photos when I need them…usually to place within my blog. Just search for what you’re looking for and make sure to attribute according to each photo’s request.
  7. Pixabay: This is a great place to search for free photos, and they don’t require any attribution!
  8. Shutterstock: If you are willing to pay for some really high quality images (usually $1-2), this is a HUGE resource.
  9. Pexels: Great stock photos and videos for free use.
  10. Vimeo: You can find free stock videos here.

9. Search Engine Optimization

You probably won’t be concerned with this at first, but if you can keep these tips in mind as you create content, then you won’t have to go back and rewrite everything. :).

  1. Write Good Content: This is kind of a no brainer, but if your writing is good, easy to follow, and useful, you’ll have a higher chance of people reading it, sharing it, and linking to it. The more popular a blog post is, the more likely it is to show up on a search engine.
  2. Make Your Topic Clear: Clever titles (and click bait titles) aren’t as useful as clear titles that emphasize the main idea of your blog post. Then, make sure to state the main idea of your post in the first sentence and repeat key words throughout.
  3. Alt-Text: When you upload photos, make sure they have an accurate name that describes the image (this can’t be added later), then set the alt text so that it spells out any text used in the picture as well as gives an accurate description of what the photo is. This helps webcrawlers to find your content in search engines more easily.
  4. Categories: If you group similar content based on content, category names are a great organization tool that recommends similar articles in your website.
  5. Tags: As you create tags for your posts, think of what people will type into their search engines. Also, include your categories.
  6. Link Building: The more people who link to your site, the higher search engine ranking you’ll get.
  7. Networking: By having guest bloggers, doing guest posts for other websites, and teaming up with others selling similar or complementary products/services you can increase your traffic as well.

*Read more about search engine optimization here.

10. Social Media

Social media is a great way to get your content out there and advertise your website.

  1. FaceBook: This is a great place to network and share your content.
  2. Twitter: Another great platform to share your content.
  3. Instagram: A visual platform to share your pictures associated with your website.
  4. Google Plus: Helps your content to show up in Google searches more often.
  5. Pinterest: A great way to get your content shared in a visual format.
  6. YouTube: Think about starting a YouTube channel to share your content.

11. Amazon Associates

If you are going to be linking to products that people can buy on Amazon, you’ll want to start an Amazon Associate’s account. Watch the tutorial here to learn about the program in more detail, but basically, you can earn a percentage (which starts out low, but gets higher when more items are purchased) when people click on your links and buy your recommended items. The really cool thing about this program is that if people search for and buy other items once they’ve entered Amazon via your site (even items you haven’t recommended), you’ll still earn a percentage. This is called a “third party sale”. *On a side note: the cost of the product remains the same as if the customer would just do a regular Amazon search.

Amazon approves accounts on a case by case basis, and you’ll need to get a certain amount of clicks on your links in order to remain in the program. You also have to make sure you clearly disclose your affiliation or they could terminate your account. (Check out my disclaimer here. I also have a disclaimer link on every blog.)

12. WooCommerce

Woocommerce is the best way to set up a shopping platform. It’s free, easy to set up, and easy to use. Once you install the plugin, it will walk you through the install. I recommend creating your own shop page so you can customize it, but if you don’t, it will automatically create one for you. Once everything is installed, all you have to do is set up your products. If you have any questions along the way, check out Woocommerce Docs.

Setting up shipping was the hardest thing for me. I tried setting up a variety of shipping options, and in the end just decided to include the cost of shipping in my product and offer free shipping on everything.

Another option if you’re looking to have all of the work done for you (calculating shipping, printing shipping labels, sending customers tracking information, etc.), you might want to consider opening an Etsy shop and linking to it on your website. The benefit of using Etsy is that it can provide a platform for you to share your product, but the downside is that it doesn’t offer as many options if you plan on growing. Check out my Etsy shop here, and feel free to copy my shipping policies, etc.

13. Nitty Gritty Stuff

  1. Cite Your Sources: This isn’t English 101 requiring MLA format, but be courteous and find a way to link to the sources that you can use. You can link to the name of the author and/or title of their work, link to some key words in your text, or have a link called “source” in parentheses at the end of the information you’re paraphrasing. If you’re citing something word for word, make sure you put it in quotes and thoroughly cite the source.
  2. Grammar Police: Think about what tense you want to write in (past, present, or future) and stick with it. Find a pattern for personal pronouns (“you” is informal, “one” is really formal, or you can stick with your experiences and just say “I” or “we”). When referring to gender pronouns, you can try to make the plural form work, alternate between he/she, or take turns with each gender.
  3. Policies and Disclaimers: You might not want to worry about this until later, but it’s good to cover your butt and have these thing covered. Check out my terms of use, disclaimer, privacy policy, comment policy, and more in my About Me section.
  4. Make Yourself Present: Find a good picture of yourself to post and have a place for a personal bio. People like to know who is creating the content.

In Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, having my sister as a web developer has definitely given me an edge as I’ve created my own website, but I hope that by offering these tips, I can help to give you that edge too. I certainly don’t know everything and have a long ways to go before I reach my final goals, but I hope that by sharing my experiences with creating a website, I can help others out there who were once starting out just like me. If you’ve got a budget, I highly recommend getting ahold of my sister Andrea at Curly Host, and she will not only set you up, but teach you how to manage your own cite along the way.

FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar Embracing Motherhood

FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar

If you’re looking for a “year at a glance” calendar for the 2016-2017 school year that you can display in one location, look no further!

When I was a teacher, I loved printing one of these out for every subject area, and using pens and different colored highlighters to see my year at a glance. This was really helpful for keeping me on track during the year to make sure I covered all of the necessary curriculum.

Now, as a parent with two children about to be in school, I love having this “year at a glance” calendar so that I can keep track of all major upcoming events in one central location.

Download the Year Long Calendar

2016-2017 Year Long Calendar PDF

Unfortunately, I can’t upload the Publisher file where I created it (in case you wanted to edit it), but if you email me, I can send it to you!

Desk Pad Calendar

In addition to having my year at a glance calendar, I also like using this desk pad calendar because it allows me to write down a lot of details, and it’s big enough for the kids to see it and read it. I like hanging mine on the wall right in the kitchen.

I like writing homework assignments, when library books are due, gym days, and any other important school information on this calendar.

In Conclusion

Staying organized on paper is pretty much the only way my brain can function. I love using OneNote for just about everything so that I stay organized on my phone, but there’s nothing like paper accountability that’s visible and right in your face!

The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

*Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop to see all of the resources I have made to help you teach your child the ABCs! Also, check out this blog about my favorite additional ABC resources.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

These observations have fascinated me and motivated me to document their reading progression in these blogs and to create my own “Teach Your Child to Read” program (a work in progress…check it out at my Embracing Motherhood Shop) so that any interested parent can purchase a kit that will replicate the great success I’ve seen with our own children.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. The Most Important Pre-Reading Skills

Instead of listing these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. Check out the teaching tools I have created to help children learn how to read at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!
15 Reasons Why Finland's Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States at Embracing Motherhood

15 Reasons Why Finland’s Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States

Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.

PISA Results

Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.

Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.

Finland

  • Reading – 6th
  • Science – 5th
  • Math – 12th

United States

  • Reading – 24th
  • Science – 28th
  • Math – 36th

2012 PISA Results

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong-China
  4. Taiwan
  5. Korea
  6. Macau-China
  7. Japan
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
  11. Estonia
  12. Finland – 12th
  13. Canada
  14. Poland
  15. Belgium
  16. Germany
  17. Vietnam
  18. Austria
  19. Australia
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovenia
  22. New Zealand
  23. Denmark
  24. Czech Republic
  25. France
  26. UK
  27. Iceland
  28. Latvia
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Norway
  31. Portugal
  32.  Italy
  33. Spain
  34. Russia
  35. Slovakia
  36. US – 36th
  37. Lithuania
  38. Sweden
  39. Hungary
  40. Croatia
  41. Israel
  42. Greece
  43. Serbia
  44. Turkey
  45. Romania
  46. Cyprus
  47. Bulgaria
  48. UAE
  49. Kazakhstan
  50. Thiland
  51. Chile
  52. Malaysia
  53. Mexico
  54. Montenegro
  55. Uruguay
  56. Costa Rica
  57. Albania
  58. Brazil
  59. Argentina
  60. Tunisia
  61. Jordan
  62. Colombia
  63. Qatar
  64. Indonesia
  65. Peru

Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?

1. Finland’s Reform

It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.

“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”

By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.

In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.

2. Being a Welfare State

As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.

Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.

United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth

So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?

3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning

Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.

One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.

About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.

United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist. 

In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman”  which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.

4. Teacher Training

I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.

Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.

United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.

5. Taken Care of From Birth

One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.

If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.

United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool. 

6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)

When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.

About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.

United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment. 

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.

The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.

7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)

While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.

Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.

United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?

Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.

8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child

Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.

The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,

“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”

They also describe how,

“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”

United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.

There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:

Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.

If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.

9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read

There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.

Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.

And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,

“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”

There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.

Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.

United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
  2. Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
  3. Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary: The meaning of words
  5. Comprehension: Understanding what is being read

The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).

When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that, 

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.

And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!

10. No Standardized Testing

One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”

United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”. 

11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy

Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”

In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.

“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”

He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.

Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.

United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.

12. Less Time in School

In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.

In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.

Finnish teachers work on average 570 hours a year, nearly half of the 1,100 hours that U.S. teachers do. In addition, they also have little to no homework.

United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades. 

13. Smaller Class Sizes

In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.

United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.

14. Play Based Learning

Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.

In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:

“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”

During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.

United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.

15. Cooperation not Competition

In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,

“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”

Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.

Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.

There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.

In Conclusion

Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.

In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.

Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop where I am working on creating a system that teaches children how to read!

To Learn More:

In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.

Embracing Motherhood 9 Tips for Getting Over First Trimester Morning Sickness and Tiredness

10 Tips for Getting Over First Trimester Morning Sickness and Fatigue

First trimester morning sickness (which doesn’t just hit in the morning, ahem) and the overwhelming tiredness that the first trimester brings can bring a rough start to the beginning of a pregnancy.

As I embark on this pregnancy with our fifth child, I’ve been overwhelmed with the tiredness and nausea, which maaaaay be a sign of twins, but since I won’t be able to rule that out for quite a few more weeks, I’ll settle for reflecting on my past experiences and a dabble of research to see what I should do to combat this nasty business. (*Update: It wasn’t twins!)

Why Women Get Tired During the First Trimester

During the first trimester, our bodies do something so amazing that it rivals the fact that we’re actually growing a living human being. Our bodies are making an organ…the placenta to be exact. This organ will nourish our baby (or babies) with both oxygen and food throughout the entire pregnancy, and so yes, we’re going to be a little extra tired during this process.

On top of this, our metabolism kicks into high gear, our hormones are increasing like crazy, and our blood sugar and blood pressure both tend to be lower. All of these things working together create the perfect storm for fatigue, but don’t worry, I have some ways to beat this! (Source)

Why Nausea Hits So Hard During the First Trimester

Now, this is a little more elusive than the fatigue question, and “no one really knows” why women get “morning sickness”. (Yes, morning sickness is a stupid name because it doesn’t just happen in the morning and the “no one really knows” things just always bother me…)

Almost 75% of all pregnant women will experience some sort of nausea or vomiting which can begin as early as 4 weeks, peak at about 8-10 weeks, and then taper off by about 14 weeks when the second trimester begins. Although, for some women it will last longer, and for a very small percentage, it could be hyperemesis gravidarum which is extreme vomiting that never lets you keep anything down.

One theory is that it is triggered by the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone that rises rapidly during pregnancy, which is why women pregnant with twins typically experience more nausea since they have higher levels of hCG. Estrogen also rises rapidly (along with progesterone) and could be another trigger. The heightened sense of smell, a sensitive stomach, and stress could also contribute to this “morning sickness”. (Source)

Tips and Tricks for Getting Over Morning Sickness and Fatigue

Even though nausea and fatigue are technically two different things, I have found their cures to be inextricably linked. For me, it’s like they work in tandem. By adhering to the following tips and tricks, I have been able to stave away extreme fatigue and nausea in my first four pregnancies, but now with our fifth baby, I’m wondering why I am feeling so particularly tired and nauseous. Could it be multiples or do I just need to take better care of myself? By adhering to the following tips and tricks for the last few days, I am already feeling a million times better.

1. Stay Away from Sugar

When you’re pregnant, your body is more sensitive to sugar. (Read more about why this causes women to experience more yeast infections and get gestational diabetes here.) This sensitivity peaks at about week 23, but it begins the moment you conceive.

Basically, you’ve learned that you’re pregnant, and so now that you’re “eating for two” you want to pig out on ice cream, doughnuts, and cake. But what happens when you do this is that your blood sugar spikes and then totally crashes leaving you feeling extremely tired afterwards. If you were already a “sugar burner” before pregnancy, it’s only going to get worse now.

I have always danced around hypoglycemia (pre-pre-gestational diabetes) with each pregnancy, and my sensitivity to sugar has continuously increased. Now, in my 5th pregnancy, I am going to do my best to avoid it on a regular basis. (But hey, there’s always special occasions, right?)

2. Stay Away from Processed Food

This kind of goes along with the sugar thing, but the reality is that you’re going to be hungry…A LOT…during this pregnancy, and it’s best to start some healthy habits so that whenever you do feel those hunger pains, you’re not stopping at McDonalds or grabbing a bag of Doritos.

Because most fast food and cheap processed food is void of nutrients, you’re just getting empty calories when you eat processed food. This is not going to energize you and make you feel alive and vibrant! It’s going to make you feel tired and sick. Now, for some people, a treat now and then is okay, and for other people, this is just a gateway for more and they must adhere to complete abstinence.

3. Eat Nutrient Dense Food

Finally, something you can do! If you only have 9 months to grow a human life including it’s brain, organs, tissues, and skin, you want it to be constructed out of the very best parts, and this is where nutrient dense foods come in. Grass-fed beef, pastured chickens and eggs, raw milk, butter, cheese, organic fruits and vegetables, organic and properly prepared grains and nuts are all foods FULL of nutrients. Basically, you want to eat food in as close to its original state as possible. (For more information about nutrient dense food, I highly recommend reading Nourishing Traditions or checking out the Weston Price website.)

Now, maybe you can’t always afford organic produce or pastured meats, and that’s okay. Just do the best you can with what you have.

4. Eat Small Meals

I feel like during pregnancy, I go through this viscous cycle where I’m STARVING, which makes me feel nauseous, and so I’ll eat a HUGE meal, which makes me feel extremely tired, and so I completely crash, and then the cycle threatens to continuously repeat itself.

Throughout my first four pregnancies and now this fifth pregnancy, I feel like most of my symptoms associated with nausea are usually because I’m hungry. But if instead of eating a large meal (especially one full of sugar and processed foods), I eat just a small one full of nutrient dense food, it usually gets rid of the nausea and leaves me feeling energized. Basically, I try to eat when I’m hungry and stop BEFORE I’m feeling totally full. And by having the house stocked with healthy, nutrient dense food, it makes it that much easier to grab something that’s good for me.

If I’m starving, I find it’s best to have something high in fat and protein. These are my go to snacks:

  • A handful of almonds or pecans
  • A glass of raw milk
  • Some crackers and cheese
  • A baked potato with butter, cheese, sour cream, and chives
  • Greek yogurt
  • boiled egg with salt
  • An apple with peanut butter

If I’m looking more for a meal, I’ll have:

If I’m looking for a lighter meal or snack, I’ll have:

  • Carrots, peas, cucumbers, etc. and ranch (or plain)
  • Popcorn with coconut oil
  • A big salad
  • Tomato salad with mozzarella balls, herbs, and italian dressing
  • Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.

If I have a sweet tooth:

5. Get More Sleep

I know this kind of sounds like a no-brainer…if you’re tired, get more sleep, duh! But easier said than done! We are such creatures of our routines, and it can be hard to change. When I’m not pregnant, I can survive easily on 5-6 hours of sleep a night. But when I’m pregnant, especially in the first trimester, I need MUCH more! Lately, I’ve been getting 9-10 hours of sleep a night, and I feel pretty darn good about it!

Basically, you’ll need to experiment with sleep to find your sweet spot where you feel well rested, but know that 9 hours of sleep are recommended per night for pregnant women in their first trimester.

6. Take Naps

I’m not one of those people who take long 2-3 hour naps and feel rested. Usually sleeping for that long actually makes me feel even more tired, but taking quick little 5-20 minute cat naps leave me feeling quite refreshed. When I’m feeling super duper tired (even when I still have a million things to do), I just plop down on my bed (light pouring through the windows and everything), close my eyes, and get up as soon as I feel my eyes flutter back awake.

Here’s some of the science behind why taking cat naps are so good for you, and how they will boost your energy, cognition, and health way more than a cup of coffee could. (I am not totally against coffee by the way, but on a side note, teeccino is a good coffee substitute.)

7. Cuddle More

I have four kids between the ages of 18 months and 6 years, and they ALL love to cuddle. I always have so much to cook, clean, and prepare, that it can be hard to find time to just plop down and cuddle, but when I do, it is something we all enjoy. Sometimes I’ll grab a book and read to any/all of them, other times I’ll just lay on the floor and watch them play, and occasionally I’ll wrap one or two up in my arms as they watch one of their favorite shows.

8. Get Moving

I know that when you’re tired and/or nauseous, the last thing you want to do is think about moving your body, but if you’ve had a good night’s sleep, a little cat nap, some cuddles, and some nutrient dense food and you’re still feeling tired and/or nauseous, get your butt off the couch and go for a walk or a bike ride! Put the kids in the stroller or in the bike cart and just move it! When I force myself to do this, even when I feel like I should just plaster myself to the couch, I always feel better afterwards. Getting some fresh air, sunshine, and the blood flowing fills me with endorphins, and I feel totally energized.

9. Yoga

This is the one thing I try to start my mornings with, and it not only makes a tremendous difference with how I feel during pregnancy, it also strengthens me for labor. When I was pregnant for Ruby and on summer vacation, I had time for really long yoga sessions, but now as a busy mom of four, I’m lucky to get ten minutes a day for this! Here are the yoga videos I have enjoyed.

You could also just go to your local library and see what prenatal yoga videos they have or type in “prenatal yoga” into a YouTube search bar and find one that suits you.

10. Supplements

Eating well, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep can do wonders, but during pregnancy especially, I think it’s good to have some good supplements. Here are the things that I like to use.

 

The Basics:

For Nausea:

  • Ginger: Ginger is known for helping with a variety of digestion issues including nausea. You can get a good ginger tea like this, or you can make your own by grating up some ginger root and boiling it with lemon and raw honey.
  • Peppermint: Peppermint calms the muscles of the stomach and improves the flow of bile, which the body uses to digest fats. You can get a good peppermint tea like this that works great, or sometimes just the scent of peppermint oil on a cotton ball in an inhaler stick works too. I would not recommend ingesting any peppermint oil, however. Read more about safety with essentials oils here.

In Conclusion

I really needed to write this blog as reminder for myself that as I embark on yet another journey of pregnancy, that I have to take care of myself! When we really listen to our bodies and respond to their signals, we can overcome so much. As I have started to take my own advice (especially the parts about allowing myself to sleep, taking naps, and eating healthy snacks), I already feel tons better! So, if you’re in your first trimester and you’re feeling nauseous and/or tired, slow down, listen to your body, and take care of yourself. You will be so glad that you did!

Pregnant with Baby #5!

With four children between the ages of 18 months and 6 years…girl, boy, girl, boy…we were starting to feel like our family was complete, but nature had its own ideas of what our family size should be!

Here’s the story of how we discovered we were pregnant…with baby #5. You’ll notice I’ve included the range of emotions which are truly the heart of this story.

June 8th, 2016

Every time I feel a bit fat, I take a pregnancy test thinking, “Of course that’s the reason why I can’t lose these few pounds!” So three days ago when my pants were feeling a little bit tight, I peed on a stick.

Scott came home for lunch soon after I took the test, and after we had cuddled and talked a bit, I pulled out the pregnancy stick not yet having looked at it myself. “I’m sure it’s negative,” I explained, “I know we’ve been careful every single time.” It was the fancy kind of stick (with a cap for the pee end and everything), and neither of us were surprised to see that there was a big negative sign sticking out at us.

For some reason, I left the stick lying on our bathroom counter, and when I looked at it the next day with the sunlight pouring through the window, I noticed a faint hint of a line that would complete the plus sign. I was certain that it was just saturated or something since I had left it sitting out overnight, but nonetheless, I texted Scott saying,

“I have some crazy news!”

He called me right away, but thought that the fact that all of the kids were still sleeping at 8 a.m. to be more shocking than a faint line that probably didn’t mean anything anyways.  We talked instead about how he would help me load up the little ones in the van during his long lunch break as we went to pick up Ruby from her last day of 1st grade and celebrate with ice cream.

Before he got home, I peed on another stick…just because of mother’s intuition. This time, it was just one of the cheap pregnancy sticks that I buy in bulk and use every time I miss my period or if my pants are a little too tight. Within minutes, the second line (that indicates pregnancy) started to show up. This wasn’t a faint line that could be explained by faulty mechanisms. This was a real deal, in your face, pay attention to me, I am telling you something kind of line. I was shocked, I was giddy, and I stifled a giggle as my glee threatened to take over.

Just as Scott was trying to scarf down a few bites of lunch before we headed out the door, I told him about the second pregnancy test. His fork froze mid bite, the color drained out of his face, and he said,

“Well, I guess the next time we need to use protection, I’ll have to cut my balls off.”

So yes, definitely a strong first reaction, but wait for it…

When we got in the car, I was all ready to start talking about our birthing plan down to every last little detail, but he was still in shock, and I knew he needed some time to process this information before diving into the details. We talked nervously of other things but held hands and smiled sweetly at each other the entire drive.

We had a fine time greeting Ruby after her last day and enjoyed some cupcakes and ice cream to go since by the time we left Ruby’s school Ophelia started screaming, “I want to go to bed!” (Her modus operandi these days.) The rest of the afternoon was a blur as I stayed busy absent-mindedly putzing around.

When Scott came home from work, I could tell that the reality of the positive pregnancy test was hitting him because as soon as he saw me, he looked me in the eyes with excitement and glee and said,

“We’re going to have a baby!”

We hugged and giggled and talked about the absurdity of it all. I mean, we actually were thinking of trying in August so that the baby would be born at the end of the next school year, but as that date approached, we found ourselves talking more and more about how complete we felt with four and how full our lives were and so on.

It was like, even though we love our kids and love having kids, consciously choosing to have more felt like wielding too much power. The fact that it just happened without our planning truly makes this feel like a miracle baby because I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise.

Telling the Children

We waited until the next day to tell the children because there was just too much going on before that. We weren’t sure really how to do it, but I knew that I wanted to find just the right moment. So after dinner, we gathered Ruby (6) and Elliot (5) on a sheet outside while Ophelia (3) and Julian (1) played in the little swimming pool nearby. I told them that they would each get three guesses and that if anyone guessed right they would get ice cream.

“My guess is that we’re going to have another baby!” Ruby guessed first. (Wow! how perceptive!)

“Elliot, what do you think?” I asked.

“I think we’re going to have another baby,” he copied. (He knows when to listen to his sister!)

“Okay,” I said, trying not to give any indication that that was in fact the right answer, “Do you have any other guesses?”

Elliot proceed to guess that we would get a new towel or that he was going to grow another head. Ruby’s other two guesses were that something special was going to happen to either me or daddy.

“Well,” I said, “You guys were both right on your first guess; we’re going to have another baby!” Ruby squealed with delight, and Elliot followed suit. Everyone hugged and then Ruby started running around the yard chanting, “We’re going to have a baby! We’re going to have a baby!” Scott asked them each if they hoped it would be a boy or girl. Elliot expressed that he only wanted a boy, and Ruby said that she knew that it would be a girl because that was the pattern in our family.

When I tucked Ruby into bed tonight, we had the cutest conversation in the whole world which inspired me to write down this story in the first place. Usually, we read together while cuddled up in her bed, but tonight I said, “Let’s just talk.” As we chatted about the new baby, I was just blown away by her insight and by her desire to help. I told her how with four kids, I felt a little overwhelmed already, and that I would probably need a lot of help. She bolted up in bed, put her hands out in front of her for emphasis, and said,

“Don’t even worry about a thing mom, we’ve got you covered!”

She went on to explain how I needed to take advantage of her and Daddy over the summer to get everything prepared for the new baby and added (in all seriousness), “And I won’t even charge you any money!”

She absolutely beamed, and I saw a joy and pride sweep over her face like never before when I told her about all of her amazing qualities. “You are going to be such a big help to me,” I told her honestly, “You already help me out so much with the little ones. Why, just today, you made sure Julian didn’t go into the road while I got the mail, and you’ve taught Ophelia so much about reading. The little ones look up to everything that you and Elliot do. That’s why Julian is eating so good with a fork, I never taught him, he just watches you!”

We continued to chat, and Ruby, ever the planner (just like her mother), wanted to talk about all of the things we would need to do to get ready for the baby. We talked about baby clothes, bassinets, and how Ophelia would need to potty train so we wouldn’t have three in diapers and sleep in her Dora bed so we could use her crib. I felt like we could have chatted long in to the night, but my eyes were already starting to close, and I still wanted to write this…

“Do you want to leave your light on so you can read my dear?” I asked her. She thought about it for a moment and said,

“I’m going to turn it off because I think better in the dark, and right now, I have a lot to think about. There are so many things that we need to prepare. I am just so excited for this baby!”

When she said that, my heart melted into a gigantic puddle of goo. As I blew her a kiss, shut the door, and felt the butterflies dance in my stomach over the thought of this new little person growing in my belly, I knew that this was meant to be. It was all always meant to be Just. Like. This.

In Conclusion

Lately, with Julian weaning, and everyone needing me less and less, I’ve started to think about the future…what will I do with more free time, how can I start contributing more financially, and so on, but with the news of a new baby, it’s like I can breathe a great big sigh of relief and focus entirely on the one thing that I was meant to do, the one thing that I’m better at than anything else I’ve ever done, and the one thing that unites our marriage, causes us to fall even more in love with each other every day, and gives us a sense of peace and purpose more than any raise, promotion, or other accolade ever could…a baby…a tiny little baby to hold, to love, to nurture, and to complete us all.

I wanted to share this story first of all because it’s beautiful, but also to show our thought process and our range of emotions. At first, we thought we had our lives all planned and figured out. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. So many times I hear of families stopping at one or two, or not even trying at all, and while that is totally fine, and I completely understand that some people are very happy that way, I just want to say, don’t let fear be the reason to stop you from letting nature take its course.

Money has a way of being stretched, time has a way of making you let go of the little things to extend it, career goals shift and change when you put them on hold, siblings love having more siblings, you actually find MORE time to be intimate with your spouse, and there are no limits to how far your love can stretch.

Now, I’m not saying to go poke holes in your diaphragm or anything (and NO, I did NOT do that!), but sometimes men can be hard to convince when it comes to wanting any or more children. They don’t have the same hormones and yearnings that women do. Their love for children grows gradually and exponentially…more so with each child in fact. This is actually because of their hormones and how they change with each child. If you want more, don’t be afraid to speak up about it. Find a time when he’s happy, and if he says yes, even for a day…GO FOR IT!

Because in the end, having children hasn’t been something that we do, it becomes who we are. And when we’re two old farts sitting on a porch swing, reminiscing about the “good ole days”, we won’t be alone. We will be surrounded by an entire future generation that will bring us joy until our dying breaths, and that is something I don’t think we will ever regret in the slightest.

4 kids

Elliot (5), Julian (1), Ophelia (3), Ruby (6)

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Mudpit for Summer Fun

How to Make a Mud Pit for Summer Fun

“You want to make a mud pit…on purpose…in our yard?!?” I can imagine your spouse yelling as you try to present the idea of creating a mud pit in your backyard, but hear me out…

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

We kind of made our mud pit on accident when we were trying to cover a dirt hill with sod (which is a story for another blog post), and in the process, I noticed how much the kids absolutely loved playing on a hill of pure dirt. They would climb up it, roll down it, dig tunnels through it and holes in it, and basically get really, really muddy. We would have to strip them down before they entered the house, and it created a lot of messy laundry.

Well, the hill was eventually covered with sod, and the parts that weren’t covered sprung up with grass and other foliage, but the hole that we dug the sod out of still remained, ready to be used. We originally were going to make another sandbox on top to mimic the one we liked at Blandford Nature Center, but well, we kind of ran out of money and were looking for a cheaper alternative.

I had a bunch of leftover seeds and plants from planting our summer garden and the kids were still begging for another dirt hill, so I went to work digging and made a dirt hill surrounded by a moat, surrounded by a path, surrounded by some plants. We stretched three hoses connected together to allow water to flow to the furthest regions of our yard, and walla! Mud pit!

Materials

Directions

  1. Plan It. Find a space in your yard that will be just perfect for a mud pit…preferably away from any pools you have, not right near the front door, but close enough to a water source.
  2. Dig It. Using a pointy shovel, dig out small squares of sod. You can use them to build a small grassy hill if you’d like. Just place the sod pieces on top of each other. Eventually they will settle in and make a nice little hill. Our kids love playing on ours!
  3. Shape It. Try to give it your mud pit some character. Build it up high in some spaces, level it out in others, use your imagination, and try to visualize how your kids will use it. I really think having a moat type structure is a good idea because it traps the water in and makes it more usable.
  4. Use It. I highly encourage all play in the mud pit to be conducted with bathing suits on! This way, kids can be sprayed off with a hose, jump through a sprinkler, or jump into a kiddie pool to get clean afterwards! With a few shovels, buckets, and watering cans, this mud pit has entertained our kids and their friends for hours.
Playing in the Mud Pit

Playing in the Mud Pit

Conclusion

Yes, making a sandbox is probably an overall cleaner project, and one that our kids have enjoyed just as much, but there is just something so primal about a mud pit that I think all kids should have a chance to experience. Being able to interact with nature, feeling the cool mud with its abundance of free electrons boosting your immune system, getting completely filthy, and creating, digging, and exploring the properties of mud are all hallmarks of any good childhood.

10 Things You Need to Know About Natural and Induced Labor

By Guest Blogger: Regina Due

Author Bio: A parenting writer, Regina empowers women through her writing and parenting tips. If she’s not writing, you can catch her surfing the web for what’s new at Fertile Mind.

10 Things You Need to Know About Natural and Induced Labor

Every birthing experience is different. Not only from one woman to another but even from your first born to your second. While controlling every aspect of the labor process is out of the question, arming yourself with knowledge about what you can expect is something that you should work on, as much as you work on preparing all of the physical things for when your newborn arrives.

There are two ways labor can be initiated — naturally and through inducement and the following are ten things you need to know about these two processes so that you can feel more prepared.

Definition of the Two

Natural labor comes about organically with your body starting the process on its own while with induced labor, the pain in started artificially by medication in the cervix, through a drip or via other methods.

Choosing between the Two

There isn’t really an option to choosing between natural or induced labor. You have no control over natural labor and when it comes to induced labor, only certain factors will impel the medical team to start labor pains such as you being two weeks past your due date, having an infection in your uterus; having high blood pressure or diabetes are some of the most common reasons.

Encouraging Natural Labor

You may not have control over your body but you can stimulate it into going into labor naturally with a few things. Exercise is always a good option, especially in those last few weeks of your pregnancy. Sex is another good way of helping your body go into labor naturally. Other things like spicy food, acupressure and even a bumpy car ride have been pointed out as helping to encourage the body to start labor naturally.

Movement

With natural labor you are more likely to be able to move around in your hospital room, sit on the ball and try certain exercises or stretching but with induced labor you are more likely to be bed bound, attached to the drip and being monitored while you endure the labor pains.

Induction Risks

While there aren’t any risks other than the usual ones that come with child birth when it is a natural labor, with an induced labor there are some added risks such as that of having a higher chance of giving birth through a C-section, especially if your cervix is not ready for birth. Other risks like “fetal distress,” infections and umbilical cord problems could also be caused by induced labor.

Timespan

Induced labor means your body has been given the push it needs to set itself into labor mode but that doesn’t mean you will give birth more quickly than those with a natural labor. Regardless of how your labor starts, this process will last depending on other factors.

Different Labor Hormones

When you go into labor naturally it means your body is ready for it and there are the hormones geared to pulse their way with your every contraction. With induced labor, your body is not ready yet and so artificial hormones are used during the labor process.

Not Eating Much

Since induced labor comes with an increased risk of you giving birth via C-section, you won’t be allowed to eat as much as you feel like during labor because of this possible surgical procedure.

Different Contractions

While all women can vouch for the pain felt during labor, women who have gone through both natural and an induced labor have said that with the latter the contractions feel “more intense,” they last longer and “they’re harder because they aren’t as productive” as those from a natural labor where the body is naturally wanting to gear up for the baby.

Adapt to the Restrictions

With induced labor forcing you to stay in bed more than natural labor, preparing yourself mentally is key to not allowing the experience to stress you too much. Practicing mindfulness throughout your pregnancy, doing proper breathing exercises and most importantly meditation, are all things that will help you to overcome the pain and the frustration of being bed bound, so that even though the experience will be hard, you will have as much control over your state of mind as possible, and create a great environment to welcome your baby in.

Embracing Motherhood Teaching Children in Their Zone of Proximal Development

How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children

As a former teacher and now parent, would you expect anything less than me setting learning goals for my children? 🙂 But this isn’t about me trying to breed academically superior children (although they probably will be), it’s about me wanting to give my children the best childhood possible…and guess what? Children actually LOVE learning!

What Are Learning Goals?

As a teacher, my learning goals were tied into grade level expectations and state standards (Common Core), but now as a parent, I have the freedom to look at where my children are…not where they should be. By teaching my children in their zones of proximal development, I am able to create learning goals and activities to accompany them that match the exact strengths, interests, and developmental levels of each individual child.

Learning goals can pertain to a desired behavior, the next steps in an academic progression (reading, writing, math), an artistic or musical goal, a concept or idea, a new understanding, movement, or anything.

Setting and Using Learning Goals

Here are a series of steps that I follow to set and use learning goals for each of my children. If you would like to see examples of these learning goals check out my blog: Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children.

1. Know Where They Are

Being a stay at home mom has truly been a blessing in my life. I love being home with my little ones and having the time to really get down on the floor with them and play. Sure I have my hands full with laundry and preparing healthy meals, but my favorite parts of the day are just spent immersed in whatever my children want to do.

On any given day, I can be found building Lego towers, tickling and wrestling, reading piles of books, playing catch outside, using our imaginations and dress up clothes to transport ourselves to new worlds, playing music on the keyboard, making Play-Doh creations, doing flashcard activities, playing Starfall, or any other number of things. I just love to let my children lead me to what they want to do and then get lost in their worlds with them.

When I get down on the floor and play with my children, it really helps me to know first hand what things they are good at, what things they enjoy doing, what they are curious about, where their passions lie, and what things they are struggling with.

For example, when I play imagination games with Elliot, I can see how crazy obsessed he is with getting into these imaginary worlds where good versus evil, and I think, “How can I bring this idea into reading? Could I make some favorite things books with his favorite characters and give them word bubbles? How can I help him to expand his imaginary world? Are there some new problems and solutions that I can show him that he can use in his made up world?”

2. Discuss It

It’s one thing to just think about it, but these thoughts can get lost in the daily minutia if we don’t express them somehow. I am constantly talking to my husband about each of our children. We love talking throughout the day and into the night after the kids are all in bed about all of the cute, funny, and amazing things they are doing. We also like to discuss the things they are struggling with along with possible solutions.

I also love keeping journals where I record the milestones and special moments of our daily lives, and sometimes I will even make charts with each child’s learning goals. Through thinking, writing, and/or communicating in some form about where my children are, it helps me to be able to visualize where to take them next.

3. Set Learning Goals

Each child is completely unique and different. I don’t think about what they need to learn before kindergarten, I don’t worry about what other kids their age are doing, and I don’t go to the Internet to look up “preschool activities” or something overly general of that nature. I just look at them, listen to them, observe them, think, get in their minds, and let my creative juices flow as I ponder,

“What would excite them? What would engage them? What would they love to do over and over and over?”

Sometimes, we have a technical goal to work on like correcting a backwards letter in writing or pronouncing a word correctly, but mostly, I like to set goals according to each child’s strengths and interests.

*To see examples of specific learning goals that I’ve set for each of my children and what I do to to help them achieve them, check out my blog here.

4. Share with the Children

Whenever I set a learning goal, I like to share it with each child. For the younger ones, I don’t explicitly say, “This is your learning goal”, but with my 2 year old, I might say something like,

“You’re reading all of the words on the whole page! I’m so proud of you for reading so well! You’re learning how to be a reader!”

With my older ones, I’ll either write down their learning goals or just talk to them about it. For Ruby (6 years old), I would say,

“I’ve noticed that you’re really interested in meiosis and mitosis. What would you like to know more about? Would you like to make a poster or a book to show what you are learning?”

Or with Elliot (4 years old) I would say,

“You are really good at addition and subtraction. I think you’re ready to start learning about multiplication! What do you think?”

When we praise children for vague and general behaviors simply giving the old standard, “Good job!” they lose sight of why they were doing a certain activity. “Is the ultimate goal to get praise?” they might wonder. But by praising them for specific actions, ideas, or behaviors, we are using praise to actually help their brains give a name to what they are learning, and this helps them to form their identities. (To read more about children and praise, check out my blog: When You Tell Children They are Smart It Actually Makes them Dumb.)

I like to encourage my older children to set their own goals too. Sometimes I’ll just say,

“What would you like to get better at?”

Or I might give them a little more guidance and say, “We’ve been learning a lot about the body and how it works, what would you like to learn about next?”

4. Find the Time to Teach

It can be hard finding specific teaching times, especially if you’re like me with a bunch of little ones, but instead of designating certain teaching times of the day (or year), I simply find ways to embed teachable moments throughout each day.

Many people have asked my why I don’t homeschool my children. Read my blog here if you want to read the long answer, but the short answer is that I’m doing homeschool all the time. From the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, during summer break, winter break, spring break, and even on the weekends, I am always looking for teachable moments. My entire home is set up for learning, and I’m always looking for ways to make our environment conducive for learning in a fun and engaging way.

Throughout the day, I balance getting things done, dealing with basic needs, and finding time for teachable moments.

It’s like I have this little dial in my brain that keeps track of who had one on one time last, who needs it next, who seems to need more of it, who needs a little nudge, who is doing wonderfully on their own, and so on.

While I try to balance things out during the day, sometimes my balancing is a little more long term. For example, I might feel like there’s one particular child who needs my attention more than the others, and so I’ll really work to make that child the focus for an extended number of days.

5. Teaching

Teaching in my home as a parent looks very different from what teaching looked like in my classroom. As a teacher, I would see all 28 students like one gigantic mega blob student that I had to keep under control at all times. When I would get ready to teach a lesson, I would either gather everyone up to circle time or have them sit in their seats as I would begin with an anticipatory set to get their attention. I would then launch into a mini-lesson where I would make the learning goals very clear. Next, I would model what I expected, give students guided practice (working with me in a small group, working with others in small groups, working in pairs, working with an aide, etc.), and then give them a chance to practice what they learned independently.

Now, as a parent, all of these steps are intermingled and actually, most of the learning takes place with the two of us side by side going through things together. In this way, the learning always stays in their zone of proximal development, and I’m able to scaffold appropriately where needed.

As Elliot and I are sitting on the floor together playing with Legos for example, I’m modeling how to build a multi-dimensional tower as he works on his own. He might look over at mine and use some of my ideas, or he might continue on his own path. As we play, I encourage him to talk out loud about what he is doing, and I listen asking questions along the way. Every once in awhile, I might suggest something new, like I might take a toy figure and have him climb on Elliot’s tower saying, “Hey, what’s going on up here?”

The bottom line is that as a parent working one on one with my child, I’m able to make the learning outcomes open ended. As a teacher, it was very hard to design lessons and activities where the students could have the freedom to go in their own direction while trying to hold both them and myself accountable. I think that the learning is far more engaging when children can decide their own direction. It also takes a lot of the pressure off from me to try to guide them to just regurgitate the right answer.

I’ll share another example with Ruby and a writing project. I know that she’s really good writing single words and short phrases, but she hasn’t been able to write complete sentences or paragraphs independently very well. So the other day I suggested we do some writing about her favorite topic, Digimon. “Would you like to write a story or make a favorite things book?” I asked her. She chose to make a favorite things book and excitedly gathered all of her materials.

As she glued each of her favorite characters down and wrote about them, I actually didn’t really do or say anything to guide her along. I just listened. I was an audience. I asked her questions or talked about what was interesting and I helped her to spell a few words, but I wasn’t trying to force her to do something my way.

I knew that whatever she created would be amazing…and it was.

6. Independent Practice

Once I sit side by side with my children and help them navigate through a new activity, it then becomes something that they can do independently.

When I work with my children on new learning goals and new activities to support these learning goals, I like to think about guiding them towards activities that they can do independently for extended periods of time.

In this way, my “homeschool not homeschool” day usually functions with everyone working on independent centers which frees me up to work one on one with a child, with a few children, or to get caught up on some cooking, housework, or take care of the baby.

We don’t have just one playroom or one designated homeschool room where all of the learning takes place. Instead, I have little areas set up around the house where learning can take place, and let me tell you why. First of all, even though my four children do like to all play together sometimes, other times, they like to be alone. I often hear an older one scolding a younger one for taking his or her toys and I always have to remind them, “You used to be just the same way until _____ (us, older sibling) taught you how to play.” At any rate, it’s nice to have things spread out so that they can be spread out.

Another benefit for spreading things out is that I usually have work to do in just about every room (particularly the kitchen), and I like to have them nearby me so I can hear what’s going on. The final and most important reason I like things spread out is that I find that children seem to do more with less. They like little spaces with a minimal amount of toys where they can use everything. Sometimes a gigantic playroom with lots of toys can seem overwhelming. As an added bonus, as kids migrate from room to room, it’s easier to pick up after them.

In Conclusion

By setting individualized learning goals for our children, I can be ready to jump into teachable moments as they arise. When children are gently scaffolded in their zones of proximal development and given the freedom to learn in an open ended environment, I think they can make the most amount of growth in the areas that are of the most interest to them. The amazing thing about setting learning goals (like these) is that instead of performing “at grade level”, your children will blow all of your expectations out of the water and take you to places you would have never even dreamed possible.

Happy learning!