Free-Range Kids is a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.
About a year ago, I let my 9-year-old ride the subway by himself. He’d been asking us my husband and me to please take him someplace and let him find his way home by himself. So my husband and I discussed this. Our boy knows how to read a map, he speaks the language and we’re New Yorkers. We’re on the subway all the time.
That’s how it came to be that one sunny Sunday, after lunch at McDonald’s, I took him to Bloomingdales…and left him in the handbag department.
I didn’t leave him unprepared, of course! I gave him a map, a MetroCard, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. Bloomingdale’s sits on top of a subway station on our local line, and it’s always crowded with shoppers. I believed he’d be safe. I believed he could figure out his way. And if he needed to ask someone for directions which it turns out he did I even believed the person would not think, “Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale’s shirt. But now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”
Long story short: He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence. I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News defending myself as NOT “America’s Worst Mom.”
The notion was that I had deliberately put my son in harm’s way (possibly to “prove” something) and I was just incredibly lucky that he made it home. One NPR caller asked why I had given my son “one day of fun” even though he would probably end up dead by nightfall.
I launched my blog that weekend (www.freerangekids.com) to explain my parenting philosophy: I believe in safety. I LOVE safety helmets, car seats, safety belts. I believe in teaching children how to cross the street and even wave their arms to be noticed. I’m a safety geek! But I also believe our kids do not need a security detail every time they leave the house. Our kids are safer than we think, and more competent, too. They deserve a chance to stretch and grow and do what we did stay out till the street lights come on.
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A Free-Range Kid is a kid who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help.
For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ’em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school the shortest distance between car and door.
But at the mall, or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot the one you need if you are really disabled. So somehow, in our understandable desire to do the very best for our kids, we have started treating them as if they’re handicapped! As if they couldn’t possibly walk a couple of blocks, or make their own lunch or climb a tree without hurting themselves, or struggling too much.
Free-Range Kids are sort of old-fashioned. They’re kids who are expected to WANT to grow up and do things on their own. And then, when they show us they’re ready, we allow ’em to.
I was a Free-Range Kid because we all were back when I was growing up, before cable TV started showing abductions 24/7 and finding the weirdest, saddest stories from around the world to make parents think that no child is safe doing anything on his own anymore. And it’s not just cable TV to blame: It’s most of the media we parents encounter. I read a four-page article in a parenting magazine the other day on “How to Have a Fun and Totally Safe Day in the Sun” as if it is so hard to have a safe day outside with your kid that you need four pages of instructions! We are bombarded by warnings that make us feel our kids need constant supervision and help or they will die.
That’s true if your child is gravely ill, but otherwise it is not true as the presence of all us former Free-Range Kids proves.
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I think it was the cameramen and make-up ladies at The Today Show.
While everyone was bustling around preparing me and my son Izzy for our interview, they asked what we were there to talk about. I said, “I let him ride the subway.”
“I did that at his age!” said a couple of the cameramen. “It was fun!” The make-up ladies remembered walking to school. Everyone started reminiscing about their childhoods the freedom, the joy, the simple fun of walking down the block to knock on a friend’s door to come out and play. And then they’d shake their heads and say, “But I would never let my kids do that today.”
“Times have changed.”
They’re right of course nothing stays the same. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it’s been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So unbelievable as it seems if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!
It doesn’t feel that way (at ALL), because when our parents were raising us, there was no CSI. Law & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air 8 nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of Law & Order scenes. On TV, it’s always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it’s a safe, quiet safe neighborhood and therein lies the tale: There’s a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in the safest time for children (in America, that is) in the history of this disease-plagued, famine-prone, war-wracked world.
I founded the Free-Range Kids movement in part to be one small voice saying, “Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don’t have to be quite so terrified!” It’s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate the real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media, and by other folks with things to sell (like baby safety product manufacturers who have to scare us about a remote danger like “traumatic head injury from toddling” before we’ll buy their products, like the “ThudGuard” a helmet for kids to wear all day when they’re learning to walk).
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It’s a sort of disparaging term for parents who believe their child is so vulnerable to injury, to teasing, to disease and disappointment that they have to sort of hover (like a helicopter) over the child, ready to swoop in if anything remotely “bad” happens.
I’ve heard of helicopter parents who call their children’s college professors to complain about a grade their kid got on a paper. A paper they might have even helped the kid write.
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Our parents were watching Dallas and Dynasty, where the biggest crime was big hair. Today’s parents are drowning in bad news that comes to us instantaneously from around the world. We hear about abductions in Portugal and Aruba. I can instantly name you five girls who met ghastly ends Caylee, Maddie, Natalee, Jon Benet, Jaycee but our parents could never do that.
When your brain is saturated with horrifying stories like those, it is hard to focus on the millions of children NOT murdered. We don’t know THEIR names. We know the ones who are GONE. So when we try to decide, “Gee, is it safe for my child to walk to school?” we flash on the stories we have heard. Also one interesting brain fact: The most memorable stories come to mind first. And whatever comes to mind first we usually think of as the most common. That’s just human nature, but it’s also wrong.
Anyway, in addition to all these gruesome images, we also live in crazy lawsuit time. That means that we have gotten used to schools and park districts banning things with even the tiniest chance of causing an accident that might cause a parent to sue. So our playgrounds are stripped of merry-go-rounds and slides that are higher than a worm. And we get so used to all these “safety” precautions (which are actually lawsuit precautions) that we start thinking of everyday childhood as inherently unsafe.
If you buy the DVD “Sesame Street: Old School” you’ll see kids having the world’s best time. It’s a collection of Sesame Street highlights from its first years, 1969 1974, and it shows kids playing Follow the Leader through a vacant lot, climbing through a giant pipe, balancing on a piece of wood, laughing as they wind their way through some sheets on the line to dry. Of course they’re happy: This was public television trying to model ideal childhood for pre-schoolers. It was put on the air after countless psychologists and child specialists signed off on it. But at the very beginning of the DVD, before you see any of this, there’s a warning:
“For adult viewing only.”
In just one generation, what was considered a normal, happy, HEALTHY childhood has become considered WILDLY dangerous. Litigiously dangerous.
We’re swimming in fear soup fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame. (People love to blame parents for not being “responsible” enough.) And Free-Range Kids is trying to paddle out.
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One very huge concern is baby formula. So many of my friends couldn’t breastfeed and were consumed with guilt for “making” their kids drink formula. But 80% of moms are using some formula by the time their children are 6 months old. That’s a lot of guilt about something very common and not harmful. A lot of parents today (including me) were raised on formula. It’s not rat poison.
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We sure do!
It’s true, one of my Free-Range Commandments is, “Fail! It’s the New ‘Succeed!'”
We don’t want our kids to ONLY fail, of course. But if they don’t fail sometimes, they won’t learn that they can get back up and go on with their lives.
For instance, we don’t want our kids to fall off a bike. Who does? But we do want them to learn how to ride. So we have two choices: We can hold onto their handlebars…forever. That way they’ll never, ever fall. Or we can wish them luck and then let go.
Chances are, if we do that, they will, at some point, fall. When they get up again, they’ll have two huge things going for them:
- They’ll know they can fall and get back up again. If that’s not a life lesson, what is?
- They’ll be learning how to actually ride a bike.
Most things in life take some tumbles before we get it right. As Thomas Edison said, when asked how it felt to fail 10,000 times before he figured out the light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
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It’s not that hard anywhere. It just takes some time on the parents’ part. For us in the city, Free-Range means teaching our kids how to take public transportation. But in the ‘burbs it involves teaching them how to ride their bikes. And in either place, we also teach kids how to be safe in the very unlikely event they encounter someone creepy.
I interviewed Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. You know the folks who put the kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and failed to mention the vast majority were runaways or taken by the non-custodial parent in a divorce case. Oh well.)
Anyway, when I said that I think “stranger danger” is way overblown, Allen to my great surprise totally agreed! “Our message is exactly the one you’re trying to convey,” said he. “We have been trying to debunk they myth of ‘stranger danger.'”
What do we both suggest? Teach your kids TO talk to strangers. That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, “Help! I’m being followed!” Or they can run into a shop and say, “Call the police!” Or, “Can I please borrow your phone?”
Confident kids who feel at home in the world are SAFER than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side. When Allen interviewed children who had escaped potential abductions, here’s what they had in common: They stood up for themselves. They kicked, screamed, bit, and ran.
So teach your kids to do that. Same way you teach them to, “Stop, drop and roll” in the unlikely even they ever find themselves on fire. And then send them out to build that muscle called confidence.
“Our message to parents is you don’t have to live in fear. You don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room.”
That’s not me talking. That’s the guy who put the pictures on the milk cartons.
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Wow! That’s a question I never got before. I guess I hadn’t quite realized how much the media loves parenting controversies. It loves to pit me against a “helicopter” parent, as if we are two different species. But the fact is, helicopter parents and Free-Rangers are not that different. We BOTH want our kids to be safe, and happy, and responsible. It’s just a question of what we see as dangerous. Helicopters see disappointment as dangerous. I see it as bracing (even though I do hate watching my kids when they can’t get what they want, or are really mad at themselves). Helicopter parents also see the outside world as unspeakably dangerous. I see it as a place children have always explored and messed around in. I was talking to a representative from Tide last week and he told me kids are not getting as dirty as they used to! That’s sad.
Anyway, back to the media: Someone wrote to my blog with this great analogy: If a Martian came to earth and wanted to understand what life is like down here, you could give him this choice. Does he want to know how 99.9 percent of people live their lives? Or does he want to know about the .1%?
Chances are, he’d want to hear about the 99.9%. But when we turn on the TV, we see the .1% the horrible stories that make the news, the horrible plots that keep us glued to CSI. And then we turn off the TV and say, “What a crazy world we live in.”
That’s why one of the “How to Start Going Free-Range” tips I give in my book is so simple: Next time you are going to watch one of those crime shows, turn off the TV and take a walk outside instead maybe with your kids. Talk to some neighbors, look around, get a feel for the place again. THIS is the world you’re living in, not the one on TV.
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Besides read my book, you mean?
Well, I do give a lot of tips in it, and I’ll give a few of them here.
- Warn your family beforehand, then turn off your cell phone for a day. Better still, leave it on the nightstand so you won’t be tempted to press, “On.” Why? Mostly because one morning my 10-year-old called to ask me, “Mom? Can I have another piece of banana bread?” And I realized: Our kids are getting used to us making ALL their decisions. Even the banana bread ones. Time to stop treating them like toddlers. (At least, once they actually AREN’T toddlers.)
- When you’re standing around with a bunch of other parents all waiting for soccer to start, or school to open, or the bus to come pick them up, volunteer to watch all the kids yourself. Give the other parents a little break. This way you are creating community. It’s your way of saying we’re all in this together and we can help each other out. It’s also a way of saying, “Look, I don’t think anything so horrible is about to happen here at this bus stop that we need five adults to fight for the lives of five or six children.”
If the other parents are too nervous to accept your kind offer, flip it around. Ask them to watch your kid! This creates a sense of shared responsibility, too. And gives you time to go to Starbucks.
- Get a little perspective on this strange, scared parenting era we are living in by visiting a baby superstore with your oldest living relative. (Yes, always best if they’re living.) Go around looking at all the things like baby knee pads and infra-red video baby monitors asking, “Which of these things did YOU need when you were raising us?” (Be prepared for a little scorn.)
- Visit my website! Freerangekids.com. You’ll find lts of stories of people gradually letting their kids go and them coming back safe and sound.
Good luck to all us parents and kids!
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What Is Kumon?
Kumon is a successful, proven method to improve your child's math grades. From what I can tell, it also gives them confidence not only in math, but other subjects as well. This is a Japanese program and it is obsessed with perfection and mastery. The kid does a lot of worksheets, starting about 2 years behind grade level, and must meet time and accuracy requirements to pass to the next level. [Note - the school math program in Japan is better than the U.S. and from what I'm told doesn't look at all like Kumon.] The main benefit of Kumon is that once the child has thoroughly memorized math facts, they make less mistakes, and it's easier to get through more complicated math problems. Recently, programs like Eye Level and Mathasium extend the Kumon approach a bit into the realm of algorithmic problem solving, but AntiKumon is anti managed math programs of any kind until the US stops training math robots and starts creating thinkers.
AntiKumon, is a successful but relatively unknown way to improve your child's math grades to the point where you need to start thinking seriously about Cal Tech or MIT. The child does about 1 to 6 problems a day, starting about 2 years ahead of grade level, has no clue what they are doing, takes 20 to 30 minutes to get it right, after about 4 or 5 tries. The end result is a child who is accustomed to thinking their way through really challenging material, having patience until they get it, and checking whether they got the right answer because they're never sure the first time. The main benefit of AntiKumon is that the child becomes a solid thinker with the grit to overcome obstacles in any advanced subject. The side benefit is that they have a tendency to not make mistakes on key tests.
After a year or more of either approach (managed math program or AntiKumon), you're going to end up with success. The question is success in what.
Choosing A Starting Point
If a learning center can take a struggling child who is 1 or 2 years behind, and get them up to grade level in a reasonable amount of time, then I can take a child who is at grade level or above, who is not struggling, and give them math that they will see in 2 years, and there you go. I don't know why no one thought of this before. Probably because they have a classroom full of kids of varying skill sets and 7 other subjects to teach.
In AntiKumon, the starting point where ever the kid is now plus 2 years. This means backtracking as needed to a workbook for grade level + 1 when the child comes across a math concept that they skipped and just can't do.
The problem with the starting point is that a child who is past first grade but not yet in 5th grade is going to see some pretty boring, useless math. What 6 year old needs to do long division? None. A bright child will conclude that math is useless, because it is. So instead we focus on the part of math that is not useless, the part that includes logic, seeing, thinking, making mistakes and trying again. The part that is going to pay off in a big way in all subjects.
The goal of a drop off math program is to get the school doing a lot of really hard problems at grade level or above quickly and with 100% accuracy. I've seen the results of this. The websites for these programs state different goals, but the end result is a little worksheet machine, and not just on routine problems. I can extend the problem with reasonable twists and complexity, and the little math machines still plow through them.
I don't want a child plowing through anything. I want the child to accumulate, problem solving skills, grit, logic, and analysis skills, usually in that order. Take something simple, like 9 + 6. No part of AntiKumon is going to help the child memorize this math fact. When the child is in 7th grade, they are going to look at it for a moment, and think '10 + 5' or '6 + 3 + 3'. I'm not exaggerating. This is literally what happens.
This is the crux of AntiKumon. When a child spends 3 years analyzing regrouping and reformulating problems because they've memorized nothing, they will walk into Algebra II and discover a long lost friend. A child who has done zero thinking for 3 or 4 years because they have been applying memorized math facts and mastered solution algorithms is going to walk into PreAlgebra having spent the last 3 or 4 years not having to use their brains.
This is not to say that an AntiKumon student ever misses anything ever. They don't. They just get 100% for completely different reasons. They are really slow, they usually have to do problems a few times to make sure they got it right. In other words, they have to think through everything. They don't get answers incorrect because they are convinced of their own ineptitude and check every time because AntiKumon prefers the student work at a curriculum level where a 50% error rate is common. Once the child is getting 75% correct on the first try, it's time to move on to something else.
There are three important reasons why I can get away with this. First of all, the MAP and the COGAT aren't timed usually, especially the MAP. Secondly, the COGAT isn't measuring whether or not a kid knows their math facts, or even knows math. They are measuring whether or not the child has the learning skills necessary to thrive in an accelerated DIY project based learning environment. Finally, accelerated and gifted programs and standardized tests rarely go beyond grade level +1, and the advanced material on the MAP test isn't that hard. When you present a child with grade level material and they've been struggling all along with grade level plus 2, it's a nice easy break.
Daily WorkManaged after school math programs provide worksheets to do every night, with comprehensive coverage and repetition on each topic. The child goes to the center weekly for evaluation and pointers, tips, and direction. The quality of instruction varies, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
I've tried this approach once. It works for a while than inevitably produces a child who can't think through progressively more challenging math on his own. The down side is that it makes math seem boring and irrelevant, which it is. Name a math topic that a grade school child needs. The really smart ones figure this out. It's not just that calculators make math facts irrelevant, it's that the switch from an industrial society to the information age make the entirety of math curriculum irrelevant and the smart kids know this. Problem solving and learning on the spot, however, are critical and pervasive, even in school work, especially in science and literature.
Daily work with AntiKumon is a page in a math book that might have 6 problems or a single challenging word problem. I am looking for 10 to 15 minutes of figuring out what the question or problem is asking for, or 10 to 15 minutes figuring out a solution strategy. I expect 3 or 5 tries on either of these learning subsets or maybe 2 to 4 wrong answers on the way to the solution. The student learns dozens of skills in this type of environment. AntiKumon has a very specific definition of 'age appropriate'. It's the exact work that results in a child who is mentally exhausted after about 20 or 25 minutes. This could be 2 or 3 problems (for younger children) or 1 more complicated topic for an older child.
When the problem is not exactly matched to the skill set, the child hits the wall before the problem is answered. This is hard to watch with a parent present, because I'm seeing a bunch of sub-skills blooming and the parent is seeing the child falling short of the answer. For example, the first subskill that emerges is the realization on the part of the child that he has to actually think through the problem and figure it out on his own. Reaching this point is a major victory with some kids and it's a prerequisite to the next stage of developing solution strategies, instead of just giving up.
The odd thing about Kumon is that their word problem workbooks for grades 4 and above are pretty good. By 5th grade, Kumon Pre-Algebra books almost qualify as AntiKumon if you rip out the section in the beginning of the book that provides a step-by-step method of solving every class of problems and thus removes the thinking from the workload.
AnitKumon targets word problems by 1st grade. Word problems are the opposite of memorizing math facts and tie math to the rest of academic subjects. The word problems have math, but not advanced math, and are buried under a mound of logic and thinking. The premise is that if the child thinks at the level of a great but tiny mathematician, the math will take care of itself.
AnitKumon works on fundamentals and leave math concepts for later, whereas managed after school programs focus on math concepts. I don't ever want anyone to teach my child a math concept. There is an enormous amount of valuable learning in between that child and the concept, and to take it way is short changing the child. In order to get there, you may have to back track and use problem solving strategies just to get to a basic understanding. Of course, you can't do this in a classroom setting. It only works one-on-one.
I probably need 5 or 6 articles on how to create the proper learning environment to get your child beyond 99.2%. To summarize - expect nothing, welcome mistakes and do-overs, take a super long time on just a few problems, don't let a problem go by without asking if there's a better way to solve it, and forget checking solutions and keeping score. In short, be the opposite parent than you would normally be. It is counter intuitive and not at all average behavior for a parent. It's not average, it's not above average, and it's not well above average. It's above that.
Recommended AntiKumon Curriculum
The only thing that varies with this curriculum is the supplemental material and the amount of backtracking we need to do. Backtracking happens when your child comes across double digit addition and is barely able to do single digit addition, so you find last last year's book and take time off to catch up. Because you skipped last year's book.
Just jump in at your child's current age. There's no better time than that age to catch up.
- Age 3 is a great time to read to your child. 100% of all of the cognitive skills that your child needs will be present and active between now and the end of phonics during reading. This will never happen again, not even in math. By the end of 3, make sure your child can count to 20. Try some addition but don't over do it. You don't want to train - ever - or practice so much that your child doesn't have to think.
- Age 4 and 0 months the perfect time to try Shape Size Color Count. I've been told both that this is 3 months too early by some and 3 months too late by others. My experience is that 4 years 1 month worked for us. It's an expensive color book, but I've watched 5 year olds who did SSCC shout out answers to questions that their older siblings are doing in the other room. It's creepy. Plus, it gets to about the level of the nonverbal side of BTS 2nd and 3rd grade, so you are saving on a stack of books.
- The second half of Pre K is a good time to do Sylvan's Kindergarten book. I love this book. It's the last time math is relevant and fun until about 8th grade. It's good direction reading and pencil holding practice but more importantly, it's good practice for your child sitting alone doing work without me having constantly badger him. There's no hurry so take some time to enjoy being young.
- We usually take half the year off from math at this age to work on cognitive skills, crafts, oragami, puzzles, or anything else that has more math in it that school curriculum will for a long time. Everyone else who got off to a late start can catch up at this time. I broke down and bought a first grade math book from Spectrum just to have something to do.
- Then during Christmas break of K, we start Every Day Math Grade 2. I've had numerous crisis calls with parents over this one and anyone can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for help. The first page might take 3 weeks. A few months later, maybe 4 months, the child is actually doing an adequate job of getting 50% on each page, and by 8 or 9 months, we stop because it's not challenging anymore. The crisis calls with parents generally go like this: "Help, my child spent 3 weeks on the first page!" Then I respond, "Of course she did, she's only in K and this is a second grade math book." "Then why am I doing it?" And the answer is quite long but I'll summarize. First of all, because 9 months later your child will be doing a fair job of 2nd grade math and things will never be the same. Second, because at some point the first journal will be complete, every page, every problem, and this lesson is a game changer when your child is holding the finished book. On the way there, your child is going to pick up rare problem solving skills and grit that kids who are taught math one spoon at a time will never have. The pace will magically accelerate on it's own. Be patient.
- I'm currently trying to close a huge gap in AntiKumon called first grade. Doing a 3rd grade math book doesn't work and I suspect it might actually hurt. I've been working on this for about 2 years and I'm almost finished. Up to now, we've been doing some cognitive skills training or just taking the year off or dabbling in multiplication, factorization and negative numbers. To be clear, the solution I'm working on does not include multiplication, factorization, and negative numbers because AntiKumon does not teach math, just learning skills. The child is responsible for learning math on their own. I don't ever want to see a homework assignment or math test again for the rest of my life. (I secretly peek in the book bag but I don't want to see a low score.)
- Ages 8 to 10 is a magic time of brain development and Test Prep Math Level 2 and 3 take advantage of this. It all started with this math problem from a text book "Johny has 3 apples and Sue has 4. How many do they have altogether?" Are you kidding me? Who's idea was it to design lame boring math that actually makes our children dumber? The first edition of TPM included 100 word problems and the target was to blow away the COGAT and the MAP test. The next edition included a quantitative section simply to extra-blow away quantitative sections on tests. Why not? Then I started getting a steady stream of requests for help from shape impaired refugees in homes that don't have 100,000 Legos scattered all over their basement and the 3rd edition addresses this with a visual spatial section but this section presents visual spatial problems with a vengence.
Forth grade is a battle between AntiKumon and math facts. I hate 4th grade. I told one child that 4th grade is a write off year. He took me up on it and brought home a D. His teacher was really mad because his test scores were always very high. I no longer recommend this. Anyway, Test Prep Level 4 is an SAT practice book. AntiKumon is currently accumulating exercises to get from TPM Level 3 to the 7th grade MAP. The 7th grade MAP test is the big test in our school district, the one that counts for high school enrollment. It's one thing to get to 99% with a first grader. It's an entirely different challenge to get there with a teenager. Or is it? We'll see.