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Clarissa T's picture

All of us want our children to flourish academically. I, a new American and one-time teen mom, am no different. 

Recently my son was the only first grader accepted to our local gifted program. I can't help but feel proud. Despite working two jobs and attending school full-time, I managed to engage with him in ways to prepare him academically. 

When he was a baby, I made sure to speak to him like I would an adult -- not in "baby talk." I sang songs about the alphabet, colors and body parts in English and in Spanish. By 18 months, he could point out specific letters.

Over the years, I followed the lead of moms from all walks of life -- not just my own culture -- and downloaded applications from the Internet to aid his learning. Today I thought I would share with you the 12 tips and resources that helped me along the way:

1. Locate your dollar story and purchase booklets, puzzles one year above grade-level. For just one dollar, you can purchase booklets in every subject with about 50 to 60 pages from mather to grammar to penmanship. This will relieve you from having to teach step-by-step while you do laundry, cook, drink some tea, etc., after a workday.

I began with an hour a day after school, and although he enjoyed it, I started listening to others who advised me to promote healthy work-life balance early on. Now I practice with him three nights a week -- one of those being Saturday evenings. He looks forward to it and I allow him to do as much work as he wants. I only require three pages.

Another great find at the dollar store: Puzzles! They're great for all minds of all ages. Since I started him on puzzles at a young age, we have moved up to 100 pieces. He loves the challenge!

2. YouTube is free. Use it. Research shows that babies exposed to different phonetic sounds over time have greater mental capacity than their peers exposed to only one or two sounds. YouTube has a variety of cartoons in different languages from French to Chinese. If you accustom your child from a young age,

If you accustom them from a young age, they will enjoy it throughout childhood without any resistance. My son started at around 18 months. He especially liked Pocoyo in Spanish.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is a great program with amazing visuals that kids ingest fairly quickly. My son loves recapping what he watches and he is usually full of questions afterwards.


Cosmos! Yes its articulated for adults, but you’d be surprised what those sponge brains our little ones have will absorb.


The Magic School Bus also just as informative as Bill Nye. I also incorporated the books for more in-depth info as he got older. On some weekends we have done projects copied from the book like a human body with appropriately identified body parts seen in one of the books.

For double the impact, follow up the subject matter in each episode/book with YouTube videos. My son was fascinated after we read a book about bees and he learned about bees dying out. He wondered how we could help.  


3. Local libraries: Free Books + Free DVDs. Great Weekend activities: My son and I have gained so much from our local libraries. I have been able to get some work done on my laptop while my son flipped through books, played educational games on the library’s computers, or was entertained at library events.


An avid reader friend suggested that Amelia Bedelia was great for building reading skills, and then of course, Dr. Seuss. Dr Seuss forces kids to enunciate and his books’ repetitiveness is good for having those words stick.


The bilingual section of the library is a gem because it allowed my son to learn about his culture and heritage -- Panama -- while reinforcing his language skills.


4. Long commute? Perfect for Discussions! Being a single mom that was working multiple jobs, going to school across town, and trying to stay afloat financially was extremely difficult. It often left little time to be hands-on with my son and we would experience spells in daily learning. I realized our long afternoon commutes (sometimes two hours) was perfect to share our days and time for him to discuss what he had learned at daycare. We grew closer as he also shared his fears, his dreams, and shared his interests and concerns while I was juggling so much. Research shows that talking with your baby helps his brain development.


Now that my son is in public school and I am no longer a college student, we have managed to maintain this habit of conversation on our way home and after afternoon pickup.


5. Admit You Don’t Know, But Do Share How to Find Out. Self-sufficiency and independence will be paramount for our kids to succeed. With all the questions I am asked by my son, I am sometimes overwhelmed with how detailed his inquiries. However, I realized that telling him I don’t know (because, really, we all do not know why the sky is blue) and showing him how we can find out is a good introduction to research. He knows about dictionaries, encyclopedias, and Google. He loves the camaraderie of us exploring a question or subject together as well.


6. It’s never too early for the Socratic Method. Explaining and breaking down ideas to little minds can be more complex than imagined and also trying sometimes. But I learned that highlighting key concepts and asking them later for reinforcement is totally doable even at three years old. (“Aiden remember when you told me about all of Saturn’s Moons? What exactly do they do?”)


7. Let them teach you. Sometimes they pick up things in these videos, books, and at school that we never learned ourselves. My favorite day was when my son explained to be what CO2 does to the environment and how the Magic School Bus told him he could help (unplug all appliances at night). He is only five! We are their best and first example and as you act as a teacher, they will emulate those skills. (He has helped teach his classmates addition.)


8. Allow for debate, even if they don’t have all the information yet. We don’t want our little ones to think that just having an opinion is as good as an expert opinion. But teaching them how to prove a point or defend something is a good start to defending a dissertation later in life. (All of us mamas hope!) Remind them they must look for more information and set aside sometime to explore the idea that they want to defend. We must also reiterate that there are still people doing research and that it’s not absolute. (Good time to tell them the story of Pluto. My son loves this story that also introduced him to the amazingness of Neil Degrasse Tyson!)


9. Show them how to love numbers. Math is scary for a lady like me, but it’s important we don’t pass on that fear (or disdain) to our little ones. In our long commutes we would practice addition. He would use his fingers and then he would quiz me! During his study hour at home, we used beans, cheerios, or craft pom poms to do division. Sometimes we used sweets (M&Ms preferably) but made sure to wash down with water for healthy teeth!


10. The arts are important no matter how much we just want them to focus on academics. This was a particularly difficult one for me to accept. Like many other immigrant mamas, I wanted to see excellence in academics only. I started letting him paint when he was 2. It was very relaxing for him and he has continued it over time. He likes architecture and design especially from far away places. Luckily, some cartoons (Backyardigans) exposed him early. My proudest day was when he was two and a half and I brought home an architecture book for a paper I was writing on Turkish rest stops along the silk road. He saw the book and said, “I bet we can find the pyramids in Egypt in here.” I reinforced his interests with maps, and children’s atlases of which we had a game of quizzing each other on places in the world.


11. Show your child that we are neither the center of the world or “the best”. Add some humility.

My son and I have spent plenty of time in children’s atlases. At that age they enjoy seeing children in other parts of the world doing activities they haven’t done before: Mongolian kids get to spend time in wide open plains with animals as their buddies. My kid wished for this after seeing it! If you have a toddler, show him the documentary Babies. It follows four babies in four different parts of the world discovering/exploring their surroundings up until they turn one. My son was absolutely fascinated and immediately connected.


“Connect and Celebrate Cultures, for Children are free of Prejudice”


12. There’s an App for that

At five my son loves Duolingo and Atlas as well as free Astronomy Apps!

What other resources and tips do you have?



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