Reduce screen time. I’m not judging you for having the TV on. My kids watch TV every morning…and then some. I rely on that time, and so do they to relax. However, there is a thing as too much screen time. More and more studies are showing that too much screen time in younger children can lower their attention spans and limit engagement with the outside world. This would mean that when it comes to school learning, for a child who is spending a ton of time on screens, the non-screen learning will not hold their attention and they may suffer academically. Technology is important, but kids need to also be able to hold a conversation, build, draw, write, and create in ways that are not replicated by screens.
School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?
To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Ashley KZ Showell.
Ashley KZ Showell is a mother, teacher, Master of Education (UCLA 2010), and creator of Forwardwithfun.com, a hands-on learning curriculum for children 4–5 years of age. Her mission is to empower parents in their child’s education and to enrich children’s lives through FUN, experiential learning.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?
Of course! As a child, I always had a special connection to my teachers, so it was an obvious choice for me to go into education. I studied education at Washington University in St. Louis, where I met my husband, Graham. Together we moved back to my hometown of Los Angeles so I could attend UCLA to receive my elementary school teaching credential and Masters in Education. I was delighted to be hired in 2010 as a transitional kindergarten teacher at WISH Charter School.
WISH was the first school that I had ever heard of that was 100% inclusive. This means that they include students of all abilities in the general education classroom (no special education room or pull-outs). The children all benefited greatly from this setting, and I may have learned more from their kindness and acceptance than I could ever teach them. Another special feature of the school was the close parent partnerships upon which it was founded. Parents are their kids’ first teachers, and I learned a great deal from the parents of kids in my class that informs my own parenting.
I left the classroom to have my own children, and though I cherish being with them in their early years, I always felt a strong connection to teaching and connecting with families. In early 2020, when Covid-19 shut down the schools in Los Angeles, I decided to share the learning I was doing with my children at home on social media, and parents began calling, texting, and writing to me, “Please help us!”
In a time that was very fearful for many parents, I was in the lucky position of being able to teach my own child. At the encouragement of many families, I created Forwardwithfun.com and its signature program, The Fun Club, where I send weekly activities based on Pre-K and Kindergarten standards to parents to do at home with their children in 20 minutes or less each day.
Forward With Fun has given me a platform to help parents directly with their child’s education and to support them as they navigate this uncharted territory.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To get a teaching credential, one has to “student teach” at different schools, much like an apprenticeship. In my second school placement, I noticed that the principal was so focused on the state testing scores that she would even call up students to the office and have them announce their scores on the loudspeaker. This is confidential information, and I was enraged to see kids often embarrassed publicly. The other student teachers and I angry and reported this to our supervisor, hoping to gain his help and advocate for students’ rights.
We were told in simple words, “Know your place.”
The unsure, new teacher inside me was upset but also nervous to be targeted by that principal without a supervisor’s support. The other student teachers refused to back down on this and several other abuses we had observed in the school. Together we were a powerful group, and in a program that was based in social justice, how could reporting injustice be looked down upon?
I may have stayed silent if it weren’t for the support of the other future teachers in my cohort. One, a future colleague of mine, demanded that the supervisor take us seriously and I will always remember her fearlessness. I saw in her what I wanted to be and realized that when advocating for children, there is no “just doing your job.” There is a cost to silence.
I learned from these passionate women that being a teacher is much more than teaching lessons. It is about advocacy, care, and trust. Adults always have more power than children, so it’s our job, not just to speak up but to act when something is wrong.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Perfect is boring.” There are so many pressures in each facet of our lives to look like we have got everything together. Whether it be with how we look, our fitness goals, our parenting, our careers, etc. there is always something we are striving to do better. I do love goals and lists, but the idea of perfection in all areas is always going to lead to disappointment.
I am super Type A and constantly feel the pressure to do more and be better, so I have to remind myself that the perfection we see in other places, like social media and magazines, is only a glimpse of the bigger picture. Not only is perfect boring, it’s usually fake too! Many times it is our struggles and perceived imperfections that help us connect to one another, so don’t be afraid to share your vulnerabilities. At least that is what I try to remind myself of! I’m a work in progress.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Willingness to learn — In a world where the only constant is change, leaders must always be learning. Not only does this mean learning about new practices and keeping up with technology, but also, we must be willing to learn from others and admit when we make mistakes. There have been plenty of times where a student has called out a mistake I made, and instead of feeling shame, I felt pride and thanked them. Bonus points for correcting the teacher! When I started Forward With Fun, I knew I wanted to share hands-on learning with families of young kids, but I had to learn SO much about creating websites, social media, and how to run a business. If I wasn’t willing to go learn all those things, I would not be standing where I am now.
- Confidence — If you don’t have it, fake it till you make it. A leader needs people to follow them, so if you don’t have confidence in what you’re doing, at least pretend you do. I remember right before the first year of teaching, I met with a parent of a student. This parent was the principal of another school, and I thought, “There is no way she’s going to trust me as a new teacher.” But shortly after, I changed my tune. I knew I had the drive and the passion to be a top teacher, even if I didn’t have the experience yet. Walking into the classroom each morning, I was sure that the experience I would give these children would be a first year of school that would set the tone for a lifelong love of learning. And spoiler alert: She loved having me as her child’s teacher.
- Compassion — Having authentic interactions with those in your community gives you a view into their lives, which builds trust and compassion. People want to work with people who take the time to ask them questions about themselves, check in on them, and can be trusted. As a teacher, I was working for my kindergarteners! Taking the time to know either by going to the park with them on the weekends or chatting with families after school allowed me to see the whole person, not just the child as my student. When they would have a bad day or a conflict at school, instead of being mad, I knew better what was going on in their lives, so I could be a support, not a stressor. Coming from a place of compassion was instrumental to my success in the classroom, and I believe that the success of my business has also come from a place of compassion, in wanting to help make learning easy and fun for kids and parents alike!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve just wrapped up a year of The Fun Club, the signature program of Forward With Fun, my education blog. It’s a monthly subscription to hands-on learning activities that parents can do with their 4–5 year olds in 20 minutes a day. I compiled all my most fun learning activities to build a progressive and differentiated learning program.
In The Fun Club, kids build a love of learning while also excelling in reading, writing, math, and social skills. The program also empowers parents to be involved in and confident about their child’s education. There are even monthly training videos that explain the “why” behind the activities and how parents can further inspire these skills.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority about how to help children succeed in school?
A huge part of my educational philosophy is informed by my educational background. I obtained a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis with a double major in education and anthropology before earning a Masters of Education at UCLA, along with my general education K-8 teaching credential. All of my education programs focused on social justice and meeting the needs of students who come from diverse backgrounds and abilities.
In my years teaching kindergarten and transitional kindergarten, I created my own curriculum and was supported by many specialists, who taught me much of what I know about special education, occupational therapy, and speech and language. I have trained other teachers and worked closely with parents as their child’s first teacher while developing kids’ love of learning that shapes the way they look at school for years to come.
Finally, this may not come with a degree, but my own motherhood experience has significantly influenced the way I look at schools, education, and what I want my own children to get out of the system. As a parent, I see that school is so much more than academics for children, and that the whole child’s wellbeing and development is and should be a huge part of their schooling.
Over this last year, I have trained scores of parents as they homeschool children, supported families through distance learning, and navigating reentering school. I too am experiencing all their concerns, hopes, and more as I send my child to school for the first time and reenter the school district myself.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?
I’ll speak specifically to elementary aged children. After a year of distance learning, many schools are seeing children come in without the necessary experience and learning from the year before. Though teachers and schools have done an outstanding job given the circumstances, there are many components of education that are harder to do via distance learning. Recently a first grade teacher told me that in all her years of teaching, students always came in knowing how to use scissors, but this year, almost none of her students could hold scissors properly. These stories are not uncommon: kids not knowing how to hold pencils, write their names, or just struggling academically. Of course, not all students experienced academic struggle this last year, but for many learning through a screen just wasn’t the same.
Additionally, children are now relearning social norms and school rules with many of those changing constantly due to new safety rules about Covid-19. What was once okay like hugging a friend or sharing snacks is no longer recommended. Understanding what is acceptable is challenging if the list is constantly changing, not to mention that many children have been isolated from like-aged peers for months or longer. Children may be unsure or anxious as they step into situations without their parents to guide them about safety. Children may have also forgotten social skills and classroom norms like how to share, how to join in with peers on the playground, how to get the teacher’s attention, waiting for turns, etc.
Lastly, and I’m not calling anyone out because I’m standing among you, many parents have had to rely on increased use of devices during 2020/2021 to help keep their children entertained and learning. My screen-time rules went out the window when I was suddenly running a business without childcare for 8 months. The struggle is real to reduce screen time and convince kids that the outside world is just brimming with fun opportunities. What might have held their attention before might not anymore, so teachers are having to work extra hard to keep the kids’ focus!
Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?
- Less homework — Homework is a struggle for many families. Some parents have time to help; some work long hours and cannot. Kids don’t need more work when they come home from school; they need to decompress, reflect on their day, and pursue their interests.
- Greater focus on the whole child — I know testing is important, but often I see schools put too big of an emphasis on the scores and improvement. Let’s remove this pressure from children and address other aspects of being a child in today’s world by teaching about community service, self-care, social skills, and media literacy.
- Hands-on learning — Otherwise known as experiential learning or learning by doing, hands-on learning is more engaging than worksheets. This can be harder to implement with large groups of children, but creating experiences where children learn through play, games, activities, and projects is much more memorable and meaningful to kids. (They don’t need more worksheets.)
Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Be explicit about how to interact with others: model, talk about, and show kids how to be social. This might mean reteaching social skills you think your child has mastered. Kids are relearning a lot of things: how to make friends, how to wait their turn, how to ask for help. These social skills should be explicitly taught especially in children who have had little to no social interaction and are now sitting in a room of 20+ kids. Recently I learned my gregarious child was hugging lots of kids after school, and this is her way of showing them she cares about them. However, not all children want to be hugged or even touched. It was my responsibility to teach her other ways of interacting with other children such as asking if they would like a hug, high five, or just wanted to say bye. When children know what behaviors are expected they know how to have better social interactions and friendships, a huge part of a child’s school experience.
- Develop a relationship with the school or your child’s teacher. Children with a strong school to home connection understand that their family values their education, and this leads to better educational outcomes! Not only does it make you feel closer to those that care for your children all day but children may take greater interest in the topics you value. I asked my child’s incredible teacher the other day if there was anything I could take off her hands, like stapling or cutting. She gratefully handed me the black and white books that needed to be folded, cut, and stapled for me to take home. My child saw me working on these each day and asked why I was doing it. I explained to her that I like to help the teacher so she can focus on creating fun activities and lessons. After a few days, my child, who previously could read but had no interest in it, began picking up these books and reading them to me as I worked. I was floored! There are many ways to develop a strong home to school connection: sending the teacher an email about something your child was doing, asking if you can help put up the new bulletin board, volunteering for a one time event, checking in on the office staff to see what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be big!
- Don’t overschedule kids! I know that I’m in a hurry to make up for all the lost time Covid-19 stole from my children: dance, gymnastics, swimming, and not to mention field trips. But going from 0 to 60 when rejoining the outside world can be overwhelming and stressful to children. Now as they enter classrooms, many for the first time in over a year, they need to be “on.” There are many social and school rules that they follow all day, much like when an adult goes to work. Once kids are home, they should have time to engage in relaxing activities or to have downtime to reflect on their day before jumping into the next activity. I read a Facebook post of a mother saying she took her child to their favorite restaurant to celebrate the first week of school, and they had a total meltdown that shocked and embarrassed the family. To me, it was a sign that joining the world of school after more than a year outside needs an adjustment period!
- Reduce screen time. I’m not judging you for having the TV on. My kids watch TV every morning…and then some. I rely on that time, and so do they to relax. However, there is a thing as too much screen time. More and more studies are showing that too much screen time in younger children can lower their attention spans and limit engagement with the outside world. This would mean that when it comes to school learning, for a child who is spending a ton of time on screens, the non-screen learning will not hold their attention and they may suffer academically. Technology is important, but kids need to also be able to hold a conversation, build, draw, write, and create in ways that are not replicated by screens.
- Get outside more. Mental health has been challenging for kids and still is as they’re constantly navigating new rules with the world changing speedily around them. Finding time for kids to play outdoors each day helps kids destress, get active, explore, and think creatively. A child who is feeling overwhelmed or stressed is very unlikely to be able to focus at school let alone perform well. Personally, when I’m feeling stressed, I try to go for a run or walk outside to recenter or help organize my thoughts. I’m then able to come back to whatever work I have with more clarity. Recharging and exploring outdoors reduces stress in many ways for kids, helping to prepare them for learning in the classroom.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
I already hold teachers in the highest esteem, and I have been so lucky to work alongside those who I believe are the best in the field. However, a lot is demanded of teachers especially with increased class sizes, rigorous testing, and the expectation to be answering emails well after school hours. In many cases, a teacher makes just slightly over or around the same as the cost of childcare — full time preschool/daycare or hiring a nanny, so top teachers may choose to stay home to parent their children. Teachers are also spending a lot of their own money on their classrooms. In all seriousness, a friend had to buy toilet paper for her students to have at school! To attract top talent and keep the incredible teachers we already have in the profession, we should be paying them more.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It would be a dream come true to have brunch with Susie Allison of Busy Toddler! She is the teacher turned stay at home mom who inspired me to begin doing hands-on learning activities with my kids. I’ve been following her (and the empire she has built) for years now, and I love how simple and accessible her activities are. I hope that she would find our teaching philosophies to be aligned and provide me with any wisdom she has on being a “momtrepenaur” in the education field.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me and my hands-on learning at forwardwithfun.com.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!