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 Essential Life Skills and Character Traits for Kids

Zest for LearningA child’s brain is an extraordinary powerhouse that makes new connections with each bit of knowledge and experience. Creative and cultural opportunities empower children to find their niche and make sense of this amazing world. By encouraging creativity and imagination, we can help kids develop a healthy brain and a well-rounded personality.

In today’s ever-changing world, it’s important for children to discover and embrace a lifelong passion for learning. Here are seven ways we can help our kids love to learn.

  • Make learning exciting and fun. Don’t be afraid to step out of your intellect and into your imagination. Inject excitement into every day.
  • Encourage kids to explore ideas independently and at their own pace. Provide experiences that build confidence and boost self esteem.
  • Teach capacity, not just skills. When children see they have the capacity to do and to think, all things become possible.
  • Make a game out of brain exercises. A few fun exercises can integrate both sides of the brain, improve coordination, and enhance learning. You can find many good sites online. Here is just one example: Brain Gym Exercises for the Classroom
  • Teach a global perspective. Pick one evening a month for a family culinary world tour dinner. Check out library books and discover the cultural traditions and diet of this month’s country. Your kids can study cook books, and write a grocery list, decorate, and help prepare the world tour dinner.
  • Role model a zest for learning. Read. Explore. Take an active interest in your child’s projects. Your enthusiasm for knowledge is contagious. 
  • Be a passionately curious, creative, and resilient family. Dare to make mistakes. Take Risks. Embrace challenges. Resist editing and don’t judge. Think of learning as a process of growing and changing. And always try to see the bigger picture.

K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca Mysteries, are published by Poisoned Pen Press. Larsens’ debut novel, Liar Liar, was awarded Library Journals Best Mystery, 2010. Liar, Liar, Sticks and Stones, and Some Like It Hot are available at the Seattle Mystery Bookstore and on Amazon. Cat’s fourth adventure, Bye Bye, Love, was released April 2015 and is available now.

Kid Reading"There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all."

          —Jacqueline Kennedy

The love of reading is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. Children who read well succeed in school and in life. They have better language skills and a better sense of the world.

Here are eight tips that can empower kids to become super-readers.

  1. The most effective way to raise good readers is to read aloud with your children. Reading aloud stimulates language development. Begin at birth and keep reading together through grade school. Brain imaging shows that reading aloud to young children literally wires brain cells together in networks that facilitate independent reading.
  2. Read with your kids, not to them. Use your voice and your tone and the way you say the words to engage your kids in the story. Stretch your child’s imagination. Encourage her to think beyond the words written on the page. Ask open-ended questions and draw on teachable moments.
  3. Reading is about language. Talk often with your children. Encourage them to share their thoughts and develop their ideas.
  4. Be a role model for your kids. Love to read. Your kids will see that you value books and treat them with respect. Set aside time for yourself to read each day. Kick-start those little, grey cells. Try out a new genre or subject you haven’t explored before.
  5. Start a home library for your kids, even if it’s just a few shelves. Children develop more positive attitudes toward reading and learning when they have greater access to books and printed materials.
  6. Make frequent trips to the library. Teach your kids how to find and select books. If you need help, the Children’s Librarian will assist you.
  7. Take your kids to a book-signing event that features a favorite children’s book author. Ask your school to invite one of our amazing local authors to class. Writers enjoy talking with kids and hearing them share their own story ideas.
  8. Create a fit, active lifestyle at home. Over the past decade, numerous adult studies have discovered a direct link between fitness and healthy brain function. The connection is true for children as well. A study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that children who are physically fit have “faster and more robust neuro-electrical brain responses” than their less-fit peers. Fit children also have better language and cognitive skills.

So turn off the TV and scoot the kids outside to play. Run and tumble and dance with them when you can. You’ll laugh more. Bike along Alki and hike our West Seattle trails together. Play every day. Your family will be fitter and you just might be a little smarter.

K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca Mysteries, are published by Poisoned Pen Press. Larsens’ debut novel, Liar Liar, was awarded Library Journals Best Mystery, 2010. Liar, Liar, Sticks and Stones, and Some Like It Hot are available at the Seattle Mystery Bookstore and on Amazon. Cat’s fourth adventure, Bye Bye, Love, will be released April 2015

Grit and Persistence for KidsWhatever you call it, the trait is essential to success in education and life. In recent research it has been most commonly called, “Grit”.

I vividly remember the first time I saw my son show “grit”. He was just mastering the use of his hands. I had 1-finger in front of him. He tried to reach out and grab it. You could see the struggle on his face yet he persevered and managed to grasp my finger for the very first time. It was an amazing moment for me as a father.

As our children grow up, it is this grit that enables our children to learn and achieve. As parents, it is our job to help this trait flourish. A simple example is with homework. Who hasn’t watched our child struggle with a math question and thought to ourselves, “I want to give you the answer!” Yet we don’t, because we know this is how they learn.

KIPP is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools ( KIPP was discussed quite extensively within the popular (and highly recommended by Kidamentals) book titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Within the book, on the KIPP website, and within the KIPP curriculum are seven highly predictive strengths that correlate into long term success in education. Grit, of course, is notated as one of them. KIPP defines Grit as:

GRIT -- finishing what one starts; completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience.

    • Finishes whatever he or she begins
    • Tries very hard even after experiencing failure
    • Works independently with focus

There are many opportunities in our daily lives to teach children to be persistent towards attaining their goals. Working on homework. Working on a puzzle. Climbing on a playground.

There are also many programs that can help with this trait as well. I was pleased to learn about The First Tee program’s nine core values. The First Tee program uses golf as a stepping stone to help children learn the stated Nine Core Values.

One of them happens to be Perseverance. To quote directly from The First Tee’s website:

Perseverance: to persist in an idea, purpose or task despite obstacles

To succeed in golf, players must continue through bad breaks and their own mistakes, while learning from past experiences

Learn more about The First Tee and their Nine Core Values here.

Kidamentals highly recommends that children learn to keep pushing forward despite the many obstacles that they’ll face in life. Kidamentals highly recommends that caretakers of children take this message to heart and look for opportunities to meet this goal.

Share your stories with us. What organizations or activities have you found to help teach children about grit?

Kidamentals Synopsis:

Early childhood education is proven to help children succeed in education and life.

  • While Heckman’s study focusses on the societal economic benefits of early childhood education, the key point for current parents (or those planning to have children) is that early childhood education is proven to help children succeed in education and life.

Personality and character trait development is a vital component of successful early childhood education

  • When deciding on a provider for early childhood education, parents should evaluate the organization’s focus on Personality and Character Traits development (optimism, persistence, self-control, etc) in addition to cognitive learning (thinking, understanding, etc,)


Kidamentals is reprinting this summary with the permission of in accordance with their Usage Policy as shown here

James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics and an expert in the economics of human development. His groundbreaking work with a consortium of economists, developmental psychologists, sociologists, statisticians and neuroscientists has shown that quality early childhood development heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large. Heckman has shown that there are great economic gains to be had by investing in early childhood development.

Heckman’s “short summary on how investment in early childhood development can strengthen the economy” can also be viewed directly at here:


Pre-K. Early Childhood EducationInvest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy.

James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and an expert in the economics of human development.

“The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Starting at age three or four is too little too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.”

- James J. Heckman: December 7, 2012


Those seeking to reduce deficits and strengthen the economy should make significant investments in early childhood education.

Professor Heckman’s ground-breaking work with a consortium of economists, psychologists, statisticians and neuroscientists shows that early childhood development directly influences economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society. Adverse early environments create deficits in skills and abilities that drive down productivity and increase social costs—thereby adding to financial deficits borne by the public.


Early childhood development drives success in school and life.

A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age five, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability—the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.


Investing in early childhood education for at-risk children is an effective strategy for reducing social costs.

Every child needs effective early childhood supports— and at-risk children from disadvantaged environments are least likely to get them. They come from families who lack the education, social and economic resources to provide the early developmental stimulation that is so helpful for success in school, college, career and life. Poor health, dropout rates, poverty and crime—we can address these problems and substantially reduce their costs to taxpayers by investing in developmental opportunities for at-risk children.


Investing in early childhood education is a cost effective strategy for promoting economic growth.

Our economic future depends on providing the tools for upward mobility and building a highly educated, skilled workforce. Early childhood education is the most efficient way to accomplish these goals:

  • Professor Heckman’s analysis of the Perry Preschool program shows a 7% to 10% per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures.
  • It is very likely that many other early childhood programs are equally effective. Analysts of the Chicago Child– Parent Center study estimated $48,000 in benefits to the public per child from a half-day public preschool for at-risk children. Participants at age 20 were estimated to be more likely to have finished high school—and were less likely to have been held back, need remedial help or have been arrested. The estimated return on investment was $7 for every dollar invested.1


Make greater investments in young children to see greater returns in education, health and productivity.

Keep these principles in mind to make efficient and effective public investments that reduce deficits and strengthen the economy:


Investing in early childhood education is a cost effective strategy—even during a budget crisis.

Deficit reduction will only come from wiser investment of public and private dollars. Data show that one of the most effective strategies for economic growth is investing in the developmental growth of at-risk young children. Short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits through reduction in the need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families.


Prioritize investment in quality early childhood education for at-risk children.

All families are under increasing strain; disadvantaged families are strained to the limit. They have fewer resources to invest in effective early development. Without resources such as “parent coaching” and early childhood education programs, many at-risk children miss the developmental growth that is the foundation for success. They will suffer for the rest of their lives—and all of us will pay the price in higher social costs and declining economic fortunes.


Develop cognitive AND character skills early. Invest in the “whole child.”

Effective early childhood education packages cognitive skills with character skills such as attentiveness, impulse control, persistence and teamwork. Together, cognition and character drive education, career and life success—with character development often being the most important factor.


Provide developmental resources to children AND their families.

Direct investment in the child’s early development is complemented by investment in parents and family environments. Quality early childhood education from birth to age five, coupled with parent coaching, such as home visitation programs for parents and teen mothers, has proven to be effective and warrants more investment.


Invest, develop and sustain to produce gain.

Invest in developmental resources for at-risk children. Develop their cognitive and character skills from birth to age five, when it matters most. Sustain gains in early development with effective education through to adulthood. Gain more capable, productive and valuable citizens who pay dividends for generations to come.

 Heckman Returns to a Unit Dollar Invested

Early childhood education is an efficient and effective investment for economic and workforce development. The earlier the investment, the greater the return on investment.


1National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research

Khan Academy Online Tool for Kids LearningKidamentals cannot say enough positive things about Khan Academy.  

After all, the Kidamentals mission is, "To help the world raise children who are happy, healthy, educated, and all around good people" and the Khan Academy mission states:


"We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere"


That is certainly a monumental task and the Khan Academy happens to be achieving their worthy mission. The Khan Academy provides free, online tutorials on a wealth of topics ranging from Math to Science & Economics, Computer Science, and more. For example, by simply viewing the various math subjects, you find the following available:

  • Arithmetic and pre-algebra
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry and precalculus
  • Calculus
  • Probability and statistics
  • Differential equations
  • Linear algegra
  • Applied math
  • Recreational mathematics
  • And More!

I have found Khan Academy to be especially useful when trying to teach my son a particular topic. My son could certainly watch the tutorials on his own (they are quite fun and amusing as well as informative). However, I like to watch the tutorials to receive ideas on how to teach complex ideas. Let me give the example of basic arithmetic.

Khan Academy has a 7 minute tutorial on Addition and Subtraction. Of course I have been trying to help my son learn the concept for quite some time. Teaching him to count. Showing him how adding two more fingers in the air adds up to a greater number. But then in watching the Khan Academy tutorial, I am reminded of the number line concept. By drawing this number line on a piece of paper, I can then teach my child arithmetic in another manner.

This is a real basic example but the importance of it cannot be overlooked. As parents, we all want our children to succeed in academia. And we do our best to help teach our child. But there are many different ways to be taught and all children vary in how they best learn.

My example is for a young four year old but the Khan Academy is great for many levels of education, including well into college. Continuing with math as an example, a child can watch tutorials on their own and then practice their skills directly on the Khan Academy site.

As our children enter Elementary, Middle, and High School, the Khan Academy is a terrific resource to augment what they are being taught in the classroom. Children will learn new ways to address a specific topic. Children will have more places to practice. Children will find new ways to be energized on a particular topic that they have found to be boring or too difficult to grasp

In this day and age it is rare to find such an amazing resource (that also happens to be FREE)!

Kidamentals highly encourages you to become familiar with the Khan Academy and their wealth of materials to help in your child’s educational endeavors.

Kidamentals highly encourages you to share your new knowledge with others who can benefit from the Khan Academy resource.

Kidamentals is reprinting this blog with the permission of Daniel Willingham at

Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education.

The blog and comments can be viewed here:

As Mr. WIllingham states within the comments, "note it's an article in a technical journal not one that was designed for advice to parents."

This is in direct response to facts around benefits of enriched Formula for babies vs Formula that is not enriched. The concern from readers is that breast milk contains the same nutritional benefits as the enriched formula but the article fails to reference this fact.

In short, it should be noted that the article is not stating that feeding formula to infants is better for child education than breastfeeding. When it comes to formula vs breastfeeding, the key point is that research found benefits from "polyunsaturated fatty acids" that can be found in breast milk or some enriched formulas.

With that said, Kidamentals recommends reading this blog and considering the "four marquee findings" that may help increase a child's IQ.


How to Make a Young Child Smarter


If the title of this blog struck you as brash, I came by it honestly: it's the title of a terrific new paper by three NYU researchers (Protzko, Aronson & Blair, 2013). The authors sought to review all interventions meant to boost intelligence, and they cast a wide net, seeking any intervention for typically-developing children from birth to kindergarten age that used a standard IQ test as the outcome measure, and that was evaluated in a random control trial (RCT) experiment.

A feature of the paper I especially like is that none of the authors publish in the exact areas they review. Blair mostly studies self-regulation, and Aronson, gaps due to race, ethnicity or gender. (Protzko is a graduate student studying with Aronson.) So the paper is written by people with a lot of expertise, but who don't begin their review with a position they are trying to defend. They don't much care which way the data come out.

So what did they find? The paper is well worth reading in its entirety--they review a lot in just 15 pages--but there are four marquee findings.

First, the authors conclude that infant formula supplemented with long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids boosts intelligence by about 3.5 points, compared to formula without. They conclude that the same boost is observed if pregnant mothers receive the supplement. There are not sufficient data to conclude that other supplements--riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, zinc, and B-complex vitamins--have much impact, although the authors suggest (with extreme caution) that B-complex vitamins may prove helpful.

Second, interactive reading with a child raises IQ by about 6 points. The interactive aspect is key; interventions that simply encouraged reading or provided books had little impact. Effective interventions provided information about how to read to children: asking open-ended questions, answering questions children posed, following children's interests, and so on.

Third, the authors report that sending a child to preschool raises his or her IQ by a little more than 4 points. Preschools that include a specific language development component raise IQ scores by more than 7 points. There were not enough studies to differentiate what made some preschools more effective than others.

Fourth, the authors report on interventions that they describe as "intensive," meaning they involved more than preschool alone. The researchers sought to significantly alter the child's environment to make it more educationally enriching. All of these studies involved low-SES children (following the well-established finding that low-SES kids have lower IQs than their better-off counterparts due to differences in opportunity. I review that literature here.)  Such interventions led to a 4 point IQ gain, and a 7 point gain if the intervention included a center-based component. The authors note the interventions have too many features to enable them to pinpoint the cause, but they suggest that the data are consistent with the hypothesis that the cognitive complexity of the environment may be critical. They were able to confidently conclude (to their and my surprise) that earlier interventions helped no more than those starting later.

Those are the four interventions with the best track record. (Some others fared less well. Training working memory in young children "has yielded disappointing results." )

The data are mostly unsurprising, but I still find the article a valuable contribution. A reliable, easy-to-undertand review on an important topic.

Even better, this looks like the beginning of what the authors hope will be a longer-term effort they are calling the Database on Raising Intelligence--a compendium of RCTs based on interventions meant to boost IQ. That may not be everything we need to know about how to raise kids, but it's a darn important piece, and such a Database will be a welcome tool.


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