NETHERLANDS: Overload

NETHERLANDS: Overload

meredith_overloadWhen your family makes a move to another country across an ocean, one of the main priorities of a mom is making sure her children are having as smooth of a transition as possible to their new surroundings. When just walking down the street to get in the car can be an experience in hearing a new language, it can be a very intimidating experience for children to adjust to their new surroundings. School can be one of the hardest adjustments to make no matter where you move.

A year ago, I had a fourth grader and a second grader in a public elementary school in the U.S. Their typical day was to get to school before the 8:05 a.m. bell and then have seven hours of constant instruction all day long with the exception of a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute recess. Then, they would come home, and we would hurriedly try to get the homework done (30 minutes of reading per night with a reading log to sign, 15 minutes of math practice per night with a math log to sign, and then whatever other homework was assigned for that evening by the respective teacher). Most days the homework was interrupted by running to after school activities, trying to eat together as a family, and getting to bed at a decent time.

To most parents, this sounds pretty typical…at least for the U.S. But, what I am not including here is the attitude my kids had towards school in the U.S. I did not mention that on top of the work and instruction and the meager 15 minutes of recess they would get a day that they were also taking a four hour long bench mark test for one subject about every week (yes, even my seven year old second-grader!). They could lose their little 15 minutes of recess and have to sit in silence because they talked too much in the cafeteria at lunch. They were being constantly assessed and assigned (major or daily) grades, and then tested again. They HATED doing their homework and they begged for just some kind of free time to just chill out.

I couldn’t blame them, their days were jammed packed, and if they didn’t perform and take the benchmark tests, then there was no telling what kind of score they would get on the STAAR standardized test given in Texas. The test which is supposed to prepare the students for academic excellence. During the battery of STAAR tests, the walls were covered with black bulletin board paper, and labels were taken off of water bottles in case the students may get any answers from the walls or water bottles….water bottles, really!!??

Yes, they take the labels off the water bottles so the kids can’t even see any numbers during the tests. They sit for hours on end and cannot even read a book when they are finished in case someone who hasn’t finished may see a word on a page and give them an answer on the test. They cannot talk during lunch during the testing time for fear they may exchange answers. All of this in the name of academic excellence and getting my children ready for the “real world”.

As an educator, I understand the need for assessment of students.  There has to be a marker to know the level of understanding of a child.  I do believe there is a time and place for assessment, but not all the time, and not taking up so much of the very precious finite time of elementary students.  I understand how the high stakes standardized testing began.  The idea was a good one.  There were schools that were performing very low in contrast to schools which were performing very high.  The concept was simple: give the same test across the board to all public school students and that would get everyone on the same page.  However, somewhere along the way, high stakes testing turned into scrutinizing teachers, pressuring students, and increasing the rigor of these tests every year.  This led to more practice testing in the classroom which led to less recess time and more stressed out teachers, students and parents. It is as if the testing is a runaway train that I fear no one will be able to stop.

My third grade daughter had a panic attack here at her new school the third week because she didn’t know if her presentation at school with three classmates was going to be for a major or a daily grade. Her teacher had to call me, and I had to go to the school to pick her up. That is when I explained the type of system we came from where the children were literally graded on every. single. thing. Her teacher explained to me that the children are formally assessed here a few times a year, but the majority of the time is spent with hands-on activities, and cooperative learning and interaction with one another in the class. The children are mostly graded informally through demonstration of knowledge on a topic. The teachers actually take the time to get to know each child as an individual…not just how to get them from point A at the beginning of a school year to point B at the end of the school year. I felt myself let out a huge breath that I didn’t even know I was holding. It felt as if the pressure I had felt for my children lifted, and it also lifted from them as well. Imagine, elementary education given in an age-appropriate manner!!!

Last week, my son came home and told me he had to finish his spelling homework. Without me telling him to do so, he went to his back pack got out his book and sat down to complete it without complaining and without any nagging. My daughter came home with a project about an author study. She had her snack after school and immediately sat down at the computer and began to type in her author’s name to do a computer search for information. Who are these kids? They can’t be mine…my kids were getting burned out in fourth and second grade. They hated homework and school. This fifth and third grader here in The Netherlands are completely different children. I have two children who LOVE to go to school here and who are learning and who are not having so much pressure to perform…

The school my children are attending here is an international school which follows many of the Dutch school guidelines. One of the things both of my children love the most here is that the school offers them TWO recess times per day. A 15 minute recess in the morning and a 30 minute recess after lunch where they have unstructured play time, and no one is having them sit inside and finish work they didn’t complete (like our old school). They have time to be outside in the fresh air and run and play or just talk…it doesn’t matter…there are no right or wrong ways for the kids to have recess.

They also are dismissed from school each Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. This is another HUGE perk for my kids. I have seen with my own eyes their attitude about school changing and their engagement in their school work go up. I have seen that their teachers are actually learning about my children here. Social skills here at their school are just as important as the academic skills. They both have homework, but it is assigned if work was not finished in class or if there is a special project to do for a particular unit. There are no logs to constantly sign or meaningless worksheets coming home.

Some may say, how are they going to be prepared?? Are they learning enough? I would have thought that also coming from the system we were in last year. I would get daily updates in my email about test grades and classwork. Here, the grades are not entered into the computer, and I have found that I have taken a step back. In turn, my children, have felt that pressure ease as well. They are taking tests at school, but they are meaningful, and not four hours long every week. My daughter gets to go to the school garden to see science in action with her class and learn about fungi and insects.

There have been many articles written about the correlation between recess and academic achievement. Almost all of them say that more recess and break time for children equates to better learning and attention in the classroom. This particular article is written by an American teacher who taught in Finland and found that for every 45 minutes of instruction, the students (and teachers) would get a 15 minute recess. He was skeptical at first but saw the results with his own eyes. And really, isn’t this common sense? We as adults, need to step away for a few minutes and have a coffee or talk with friends. We know when we have been pushed too far and need a break. Why do schools constantly push students even when the students have reached the point in a lesson where they are not paying attention anymore?

As a former teacher before I stayed home with my children, I have seen the public school system in the U.S. change in the 10 years since I have left education. I have seen more stressed out children, teachers, and parents (myself included) since I was an educator. Seeing education in practice here at the school my children are attending, I see what elementary education was supposed to be. The way elementary education is taught here is what I was taught it was supposed to be in my university courses, and how I implemented it in my own classroom.

After moving here and seeing the attitude change so much in how my own children view school and how much they have learned, I am convinced of a less pressure-based environment, I feel that the meaningful instruction which takes place when the children are truly engaged in the lesson is so much more valuable than powering through a lesson in which the students are not paying any attention to because of no down time and constant pressure to perform.

Having time at school for unstructured play for my own children has made a world of difference in their academic lives. They are developing their social skills and problem-solving skills during their guaranteed recess time (which is not taken away from them as a punishment). Even when we are going to after school activities, we are not as stressed about long bench mark tests the next day. They may still have homework when we get home, but the feeling of all the stress and pressure seems to have lifted on all of us. And, they actually WANT to do the work because it is meaningful to them.

The conferences I had with their teachers last week reflect exactly what I am seeing at home. Both of my children are well adjusted and happy, and are performing at or above grade level in their classes. THIS is what I wanted for my children. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them to have friends, and develop into people that other people would actually like to be around.

Childhood is such a precious time when so much of one’s personality is developed.  That time can never be given back.  I fear that the lack of downtime and recess time at school is hurting elementary children.  There will be plenty of time for hours of homework and test stress in high school and university level education.

I know that our time in the Netherlands will eventually come to an end because such is the life of an expat, but until we have to leave, we are ALL enjoying the lack of overload we were all feeling at our old school.

Does your child’s school give regular recesses? Have you noticed if it helps or hinders your child? Do your children have regular testing in their school? How does they handle it?

This is an original post to World Moms Network by Meredith. You can check out her adventures as life as an expat in The Netherlands on her blog www.gettingonthebicycle.blogspot.nl

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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NETHERLANDS: Get Right Back on The Bicycle

NETHERLANDS: Get Right Back on The Bicycle

img_0587Seven years ago, we moved to Lagos, Nigeria with a sixteen month old and a three year old. When we came back to the U.S., we suddenly had a four year old and a six year old!

We have been in the U.S. for four years and this summer, our family has embarked on our second expat assignment outside the U.S. Last week, my children and I arrived in The Netherlands. My husband’s job has brought us here, and he has been working here for the last few months while my children finished up school, and I squared the sea shipment away.

This is not the first time our family has moved so far away from our home, but it is the first significant move for both of my children. When we moved back from Lagos, they were practically babies ( ages 4 and 6). They were a bit sad at the time that their playmates weren’t coming back with them, but honestly, all they cared about was that Mom and Dad were with them. This time, was a bit of a different story…

When we first told the kids we were moving back in December, they were almost panic stricken. My son (who is going into fifth grade, age 11) immediately said he didn’t want to leave all of his friends. My daughter (who is going into third grade, age 8) worried about what our new house would look like. What if no one would like her in her new school. They were both worried they wouldn’t understand the language around them. I completely understood how they felt as I had moved around a bunch of times while I was growing up because of my dad’s job. I knew the feeling of worrying about fitting in, a new house, new school, new friends.  All the things that are so very important in a child’s eyes. And, I was asking my own children to do just that, and also to go live in another country all together!

It wasn’t easy at first convincing them it was ok. I tried to remember my own feelings about moving every two years while I was growing up and feeling like I had no control over what was happening to me. I knew I didn’t want my own children to feel as if their own feelings and thoughts about the move didn’t matter. My husband and I talked with them A LOT. He was going first, so he would talk to them about what they wanted in our new home. He made sure to bring things in the first shipment and in his luggage that they would already see in our new home when we arrived for a visit earlier this summer. I made sure to let them know that it was ok to talk to me if they were feeling unsure or anxious about moving. The good news for them is that we are going to be moving back to the U.S. in a few years, and many of their friends that they are saying good bye to now may still be there when we move back. My husband and I wanted them to know that their thoughts and feeling did matter to us through this transition and that we were going to listen to what they had to say.

They both talked to me and wanted a going away party with their closest friends, and we did just that. They got to pick exactly what they would want to do with their friends.  (My son had a game truck come to our house, and my daughter had a p.j. and movie party with her friends). All of their friends signed a matte frame for both of them and we made sure to take a picture of them with all their friends that we could take with us and hang it in both of their new bedrooms. Most of all, I wanted them to know that friends are friends even if you don’t live in the same place at the same time.

And just like the song, “Make New Friends” says, we also talked with them about the importance of being open to making new friends in our new home. We approached our new move as an adventure…not an end to something.

Last week, we arrived in The Netherlands, and both the kids were extremely nervous about a new place to live. Happily, we have discovered how much the Dutch people LOVE riding bikes EVERYWHERE!!!! Biking is something my kids love to do. They have also discovered that the stroopwafel may be the BEST thing ever invented. They observed their own mother falling off a bike in an intersection, and watching me laugh at myself!

Tuesday was their first day of school, and as we biked to the school that morning, they were both very nervous as they heard so many children speaking Dutch. They didn’t understand a word, and neither did I. I don’t think anyone has ever felt the most unsure feeling in the world until you are among everyone who is speaking a different language than you.

I looked at both of them and told them that we are in The Netherlands, and people will speak Dutch most of the time. Just like in the U.S., people speak English most of the time. I explained to them that they would be taught in English, and it was ok to feel uncomfortable in a new place. But, most importantly, they needed to remember to be open to new things and to focus on the adventure we are on.
Preparing for this expat move with my school age children has taught me that my attitude towards the move is contagious. If I can laugh at myself and show that I am willing to accept the differences and the uncomfortableness in our new home, so will they. (I’ll have to talk about forgetting my shopping bags every.single.time. I went to the store last week another time!) Our children watch everything we do, and if we show them that we are ok, they will follow suit.  Just like getting back on a bicycle when you fall off, as an expat, you pick yourself up when you are uncomfortable and make mistakes in a new place and get right back “on the bicycle”.

I am happy to report that they both had great first days of school this week. Both of my children are the only ones from the U.S. in their classes, and they are both so excited about that! We may have many falls off our bicycle here but we will always, always remember to get right back on! There are just too many news things to see and do here.  We can’t let little things get in the way of our adventure. We are so excited for this great new adventure in The Netherlands, and I can’t wait to write all about it on World Mom’s Network.

Have you moved with older children? How did you ease their fears and anxieties about moving?

This is an original post for world Moms Network by Meredith.  You can check out her adventures in The Netherlands on her blog here.  You can also check out her  adventures in Lagos, Nigeria here.

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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USA: A Dinosaur

USA: A Dinosaur

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When I think of my own elementary school experience, I remember recess games and lunch time chats. I remember “round robin” reading and math fact drills. I remember class time and spelling tests, but I also remember having time to play with my friends, and that was one of the highlights of going to school. We were able to have two times a day where we had unstructured recess time to just go outside and have time to play with our friends. (more…)

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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USA: Priceless

USA: Priceless

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When we bring our babies home with us, it is our instinct to protect them and make sure they do not go without anything they need. Their cries hurt our hearts to hear them in distress. It is hard to believe that something so small can be so demanding. Their demands are simple: eat, sleep, diaper changing , repeat. As they grow, their needs are still there but in their own world discovery, the idea of what they need and what they want starts to blur. As parents, we want what we think is best for our children. We try to shelter them from hurt and failure. And, whether we admit it or not, we somehow project our own feelings of hurt, success,and failure on them in some ways. (more…)

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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USA: The Mirror

USA: The Mirror

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I don’t ever remember not feeling this way. I just know from an early age that I felt things a little deeper than my other friends or family. My feelings could be hurt so easily, and when I was little, I remember crying for days after my Grandma would leave from a visit because I missed her so much.

As I got older and went into high school, I still felt things very deeply, but didn’t want others to know if something bothered me. I would cover it up in front of others and cry when I would get home. Which sounds like most teen age girls, I know. But, this was a little different. I would try to cover up my feelings of inadequacy and then my feelings turned to anxiety over whether other people would know how sensitive I really was.

Something would happen during the day and it would stay with me for days afterward. I would think about it over and over and then the anxiety led to feelings of such sadness and it seemed like a pit I could never get out of. My parents noticed that I was sad a lot, and they did talk to me. I know they cared, but it was like nothing could take away the anxiety and sadness. They thought I was just a teenage girl with overactive hormones.

In college, I studied hard and tried to be the “good girl”. I knew I wasn’t perfect, and I tried so hard to cover up my imperfections. By this point, I was really good at covering up my true feelings of how I felt inside. I worried obsessively about almost everything and doubted myself in the process. I could go for days without eating because my stomach was in knots. Exam time was the worst. I would go over and over in my head what I put for answers. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that obsessive worrying led to such sadness that it was hard to even get out of bed some days.

I remember my first job out of college and coming home so exhausted that it was all I could do to wash my face and roll into bed at night.

I remember looking in the mirror and wondering what people would think of me if they saw me just like I was…red eyes, bags underneath them, my complexion broken out…would people really want to see the real me…or the “me” I show to them everyday.

I worried so much about everything being perfect in my classroom that some evenings, I would have to force myself to go home because I probably could have stayed all night to make everything just right. Right about that time, a new song came out on the radio by P!ink called “Don’t Let me Get Me”. I remember some of the lyrics to that song, “Don’t let me get me…I’m my own worst enemy.” I had never heard a song describe so perfectly how I had always been feeling inside.

Why was I so critical of myself? Why could I never cut myself a break?

At about the same time, I remember talking with my mother on the phone and pouring my heart out to her. She suggested that I should go and talk to someone and maybe I would feel better about things.

I did go ahead and talk with someone and discovered that I did suffer and probably had been suffering from anxiety and depression for most of my life. I remember feeling so ashamed of hearing her tell me that. Wasn’t that a sign of weakness if I couldn’t just will myself to be happy?

To make a VERY long story a bit shorter, I fought the idea that I had anything wrong with me for a few years until one day when my husband came home from work, I just cried in his arms for almost an hour and I could see in his eyes he didn’t know what to do. I knew it was time for me to really try to take control of this thing that seemed to be taking control of me. After coming to that point, I decided that it was time to face what I had been running away from for so long. With some help, I learned how I could manage my anxiety better which also helped with my depression.

When I stayed home with my children and stopped teaching, I poured my all into being a mother. I was and still am so very happy that I was able to become a mother to two amazing human beings. But, it is still a struggle with myself each and everyday to keep my nagging anxious thoughts at bay and not let them overwhelm my mind. Now that I know what it is, it is so much easier to face it.

Then, a few weeks ago, my seven year old daughter came home from school and we were talking about her day and she told me that she thought she hadn’t done well on a test at school. I asked her why and then she started to cry and told me it was because she wasn’t as smart as the other children in her class. I told her that of course she was just as smart or smarter than those other students and that she should know that.

She said, “No, I don’t. I always feel like I am not as good as them.”

OUCH!!!! That struck a chord with me. How had this happened? I was supposed to be the “good” mom. I had never once told my daughter that she wasn’t good enough. In fact, we had done just the opposite. My husband and I have actually always been both her and my son’s personal cheerleaders. Where did this come from? I gave her a big hug and told her not to worry about her test and that it would all be fine. She had her snack and went to change her clothes. As she walked away, I got tears in my eyes. I know part of growing up is having feelings of not being good enough, but I also know how it feels to carry that feeling with you your whole life. That was not what I wanted for my daughter.

That night after the kids went to bed, I told my husband what she had said and other things I had noticed that made me worry that she was feeling low about herself. He said, “Have you looked in the mirror? She is a little you.” My husband has always been my cheerleader, and can always see the good in me even if I don’t see it. And, I know he always tells me the truth even when I may not be ready to hear it.

Over the next few days, I thought about what he had said and how I had felt growing up. I was determined that I would do everything in my power to help my daughter to not feel that way. When I was young, no one really ever talked about feelings of depression or anxiety. It was just attributed to people being too soft or high spirited.

Today, even though it isn’t always openly talked about, we can now talk about anxiety and depression without as much stigma being attached to it. My hope is that my daughter and my son do not have to struggle for years because people are too embarrassed to talk about it. I hope that my children do not have to go through what I went through.

I know this post may be a little too personal for some, but I am hoping that we, as mothers, take notice of our children if we think they are exhibiting signs of increased anxiety or depression. It can start young or later on and maybe not all for some. But, if your child had a heart condition or broke a limb, you would do whatever you could to help your child. Talking about depression or any other mental illness needs to be the same thing.

My hope is that by writing about this, it will help keep the dialogue going that seems to be starting to rumble in recent years about mental health. People who are suffering from mental illness are truly suffering inside and they need to know that is okay to reach out to someone without feeling embarrassed or scared.

These days, I have a new favorite song by Mary Lambert entitled “Secrets”. It is such a liberating song (but don’t listen to it around your kids…it does have a little bad language). It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly, I have become a friend to myself. I am seeing that it is okay to be kind and give myself a break. I am consciously choosing to be positive to myself and in the process, I am finding out I am really not so bad.

My hope is that my own positive outlook and self talk will emanate to my daughter. When she looks in her own mirror, I want her to see someone who is strong, beautiful and good. And, if we need to get a little extra help along the way, then so be it. Life is a journey and we are all a work in progress.

Have you or your children struggled with anxiety or depression? How have you handled it?

This is an original post to world Moms Blog by Meredith. you can check out her adventures as living as an expat in Nigeria and her transition back on her blog at www.wefoundhappiness.blogspot.com.

The photo in this post has a creative commons attribute license.

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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USA: The Ones You Have

USA: The Ones You Have

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I remember when I was little playing with my dolls and pretending that I was a mom from a very young age. I don’t think I ever remember a time when I was young thinking I wouldn’t have children. I remember coming up with names for girls and boys. As I grew up and got married and the thought of having my own children became more and more real, I began thinking and dreaming of what they would be like. (more…)

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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