9 Tips for Parents If Your Child is Changing Schools

newscoolMy last blog discussed my reactions about our recent move. I’m happy to report we are settling into our new home, and I thank everyone for all of the good wishes.

The anxiety I experienced as an adult made me think of all of the children who may be changing schools come September. Whether your family is moving — or your child is changing schools for any number of other reasons — there are steps you can take now to ease the transition for your child.

Whatever the age of your child, it’s a good idea to arrange a visit to the new school. Although school is not in session over the summer, a visit will demystify the new school environment by enabling your child to see the physical building, including classrooms, playground, and cafeteria. The principal may be around, and as the school year approaches, teachers may be at the school setting up their classrooms. Meeting some of the school personnel will familiarize your child with the new cast of characters in his or her life.

There are also many excellent children’s books for young children that deal with school, such as Curious George Goes to School by Margret Rey, and The Berenstain Bears Go to School by Jan and Stan Berenstain. My all time favorite book for children and adults of all ages is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. It inspires kids of all ages to be bold and courageous in new situations.

Here are some tips to help you and your child become comfortable in the new school.

1.   It is normal for both you and your child to be anxious about entering a new school, but if you have concerns, please don’t express them to your child. Express confidence and optimism about his/her ability to meet the new challenges.

2.   Look for opportunities for your child to meet his/her classmates over the summer. Check with the school principal, PTA, religious and social organizations and other groups to find connections.

3.   If your child has special needs, such as a learning disability or food allergy, work with the new school as far in advance as possible to determine placement and to line up services and support.

4.   Keep the spark of learning alive during the summer. Students can lose from one to three months of learning during the summer, so plan to keep your child engaged by encouraging reading, word games, math and nature activities. Simply cooking and baking with kids can help develop math, reading, and science skills.

5.   Call the PTA or PTO president and introduce yourself. Parent organization leaders are in a good position to share information and issues about the new school with you. Ask how you can contribute your skills and interests. Getting actively involved in your child’s new school benefits you and your child! Research indicates that the more involved parents are, the more successful their own children will be.

6.   Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse. By all means, contact them if you have questions or concerns.

7.   Become familiar with your school and school district websites, and check them for calendar changes, meeting announcements and minutes, news, policies and procedures, and other information.

8.   Check your mail for the publication of the annual calendar/directory. Keep it in an accessible place.

9.   Find out how your school communicates important information to parents and then be alert to those messages. Is it by automated phone message, e-mail blasts, electronically through systems such as Parent Portal, newsletters, snail-mail, or in your kids’ backpacks?

Staying on top of information and issues will enable you to be a proactive and informed parent. Your ongoing engagement, support, and encouragement will expedite your child’s transition into the new school.


How to Manage Your Child’s Food Allergy at School

The holiday season, beginning with Halloween and culminating in Christmas, is still celebrated in many schools with festivities – including a heavy dose of treats. This is particularly problematic for children with food allergies.

A study reported in the Journal of Pediatrics indicates that eight percent of children under the age of 18 have food allergies. The report noted that food allergies were most prevalent among preschoolers, and teenagers were most likely to have dangerous and deadly reactions. Peanut allergies were the most common, followed by milk and shellfish allergies.  Other foods triggering food allergies were: tree nuts, eggs, fish with fins, strawberries, wheat and soy.

While many food allergies in children are mild and fade as youngsters grow, others can be severe and life threatening. According to the study, 40 percent of children with food allergies experience acute symptoms, such as wheezing, and anaphylaxis– a medical emergency, which involves trouble breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

More students than ever are currently attending school with severe food allergies. And some believe that food allergies are on the rise. For more than a decade, I supervised the school nurses in an 11,000-student school district. I often consulted with parents, principals, and nurses about students’ allergies, the parent’s role, and the schools’ response. Parents need to be proactive about their children’s food allergies throughout the school year, but particularly when shared foods are abundant during class celebrations.

If your child has a food allergy, you are your child’s best advocate. Make sure you are thoroughly informed about your child’s needs and rights. It is critically important for you to communicate with the school principal, school nurse, and your child’s teachers, as well as other parents. Be actively involved in helping the school to understand and provide the services and attention your child needs to succeed. Here are some suggestions to help you be proactive.

  • Become an expert on your child’s allergy.  Read about it, speak with your allergist, and consider joining a food allergy support group. Know what foods your child must avoid, and the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. Learn how to use an epi-pen if your doctor prescribes it.
  • Prepare information about your child’s allergy, possible reactions, and medications, and share it with the school.
  • Learn how your school generally handles food allergies. For example: is there a peanut free table in the cafeteria? Are children allowed to bring snacks from home and share them? What happens at birthday parties and other celebrations?
  • Work with school personnel to build a support team for your child. Educate them to avoid allergens, how to respond to your child’s symptoms, and how to react in an emergency. You will also want to discuss issues, such as field trips.
  • Check the school’s policies, protocols and guidelines in regard to the handling of food allergies.
  • Update prescriptions, doctor’s orders and other necessary paperwork at the start of each school year or when there is a change in your child’s treatment.

Often, food allergies can be addressed successfully by developing a medical management plan that gives the school guidance on your child’s specific needs. Creating a medical management plan for how your child’s allergy will be handled at school should be a team effort that includes you, your child, school personnel, and your child’s doctors. It is very important that the plan is documented in writing.

Parents often ask about whether they need a 504 Plan to manage their child’s food allergy at school. 504 Plans are comprehensive plans created collaboratively by parents, nurses, and other interested parties to address the student’s individual needs. While a medical management plan provides guidelines, a 504 Plan is legally binding. It is your call whether you want to request a 504 Plan for your child.

School districts are required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794) to provide all students, regardless of disability, with a “free appropriate public education.” This provision, found in section 504, applies to any condition – physical, mental, or emotional – that might interfere with a student’s ability to receive an education in a public school. That means that no student with a disability can be excluded from school.

A severe food allergy, such as peanuts, is a condition that may or may not fall under the Rehabilitation Act. For example, 504 Plans may address the use of anaphylactic medications, such as epi-pens, and how staff will be utilized to recognize and respond to allergy symptoms. 504 plans may also address specific responsibilities of students and staff.

A student must have a condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” to qualify for a 504 Plan. Students have to be evaluated by the school district to determine whether they are eligible. The district will take into consideration the age and capability of the child. If parents are dissatisfied with the outcome, they may appeal.

The bottom line has to do with the seriousness of your child’s symptoms and how capable he/she is to take care of his/her health needs. You are the best judge. It is your decision whether you want to have a legally enforceable plan or if you are comfortable with a medical management plan. Whichever you choose, it is always a good idea to make sure everything is in writing. If you are in doubt, consult with your child’s doctor, and an attorney who has expertise in this area.

Follow Dr. Ain on Twitter and subscribe to her blog, Your Education Doctor


Middle School Success Tips for Parents and Kids

PTO Today recently published 34 Success Tips for Middle School parent organization leaders. All of the suggestions acknowledge, “middle school is different from elementary school, and not just for the kids.” The piece offers some great ideas about how to involve middle school parents in their children’s PTAs and PTOs, while recognizing that parents have a short commitment to the middle school. Communication – with other parents, school personnel, and students – is key.

But what if you’re not a PTA leader? You’re just an average parent – stretched in numerous directions. You are amazed at the changes in your child, and wonder how you can get involved in his or her new school.  Children leave the cocoon of the elementary school just at the time their bodies are changing and they are more interested in listening to their peers than their parents.

So how can parents empower themselves to help their children succeed now that they are in middle school? What is the best way to communicate with teachers and other middle school personnel? How can you nurture your child’s emerging independence at the same time that you keep a watchful eye on his/her activities?

Earlier this year, I wrote about this topic on tweenparent.com.   Here are some of my tips:

  • Don’t drop out of sight when your children reach middle school. This is a big mistake. Unlike elementary schools, there is usually not a need for class mothers and volunteers in the classrooms. But you should still remain actively involved. Go to PTA meetings, join committees, or volunteer to chaperone school dances and other activities. When parents are invited to events, such as meetings, concerts, plays, open houses, conferences and special programs, make it your business to attend.
  • Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all your children’s teachers, principal, other middle school administrators, counselors, and school nurse. By all means, contact them if you have questions or concerns.
    • Know your school and school district websites, and check them frequently for calendar changes, meeting announcements and minutes, news, policies and procedures, and other information.
    • Find out how your school communicates important information to parents and then be alert to those messages. Is it by automated phone message, e-mail blasts, electronically through systems such as Parent Portal, newsletters, snail-mail, or in your kids’ backpacks?
    • Keep the school calendar in an accessible area and check it frequently.
    • Help your child with organizational skills, including managing homework. Find out what method the school uses for contacting parents and helping students stay on top of homework, such as agendas or Internet sites.
    • Get to know all of your child’s teachers. Ask about their expectations, as well as homework and testing.
    • As much as your child may act like he/she is not interested in talking to you, try to engage him/her in conversation on a regular basis. Be a good listener. Show a genuine interest in his/her studies, activities and friends. Show sincere attention even if your child acts like he/she does not want to be in your company. If you keep up the communication, she/he will know you will be there when advice is needed.
    • Since the middle school years are the period when young people are forging their identity, it is the ideal time for them to explore their interests. Encourage them to become involved in extra-curricular activities, such as music, sports, social action, etc., so they can hone their talents and skills.
    • Peer pressure becomes paramount at this age. Pay attention to who your child’s friends are. Know where your child is at all times. Be alert to signs that others are unduly influencing your child.
    • Pick your issues carefully. Is it more important to take a stand on fashion or values, messy room or drugs?  Try to decide ahead of time where you will take your stand.
    • Insist on good attendance. If your child misses school for a legitimate reason, make it clear he/she needs to keep up with schoolwork. Contact the school to make arrangements.

Middle school can be a bewildering time, for parents as well as children. Your child is becoming more autonomous, but still needs your support, engagement, encouragement, and understanding.  Stay involved in your child’s school. Research indicates that the more involved parents are, the more successful their own children will be.


Chicago Teachers and Students Return to School: What happened to caring?

The 350,000 students and 29,000 teachers in the Chicago Public Schools returned to school on Wednesday after the teachers’ union voted to suspend its strike that had lasted seven days.

Union members must still ratify the contract agreement with the school district. Key provisions in the contract include: longer school days for elementary and high school-age students, 10 additional instructional days each school year, and a 17 percent salary increase over the next four years.

The contract preserves the right of principals to determine which teachers will be hired and puts into place a teacher evaluation system in accordance with state law that takes into account student performance. The system will be phased in over three years, when test scores will account for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

The evaluation system, based on standardized exams, was a sticking point for the union, as it is for teachers throughout the country.  Teachers object to this impersonal form of evaluation that they believe destroys creativity and forces them to teach to the test. They also point to the fact that any test is only a snapshot of a student on a particular day and can be influenced by any number of factors, including a challenging home situation, special needs, and health issues. One thing a standardized test can never measure is caring — a teacher’s ability to understand and address the unique needs of every child in his or her class.

Having sat in on numerous school contract negotiations, I can tell you that the best contract agreement is when both sides walk away not feeling totally satisfied. That appears to be the case in Chicago.

But one has to question the wisdom of union officials to have locked the poorest and most vulnerable children out of class at the beginning of the school year, placing additional burdens on their already struggling parents.  Chicago teachers can’t have it both ways. They can’t object to an evaluation system that does not recognize their profession as a humane enterprise – and then turn around and ignore the basic needs of their students.

Caring – the most essential and least tangible element in education – cannot be measured by test scores. But can it be gauged by the actions of a union?

As Chicago and the nation move forward from the debacle of this strike, let’s hope that the needs of children, teachers, and parents, can find common ground. The teaching profession is a caring one, and children who are nurtured by teachers and parents have a better chance of succeeding in school and in life. The concept of caring needs to be injected not only into the dialogue about education, but also into the actions of all stakeholders.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-todays-assignment-seal-deal-with-chicago-teachers-20120918,0,7319589.story?page=2

The subject of Dr. Meryl Ain’s doctoral dissertation was caring leadership in schools. She writes about this and other issues on her blog, Your Education Doctor www.youreducationdoctor.wordpress.com


Back to School Toolkit for Working Parents

It’s the time of year when parents who have school-age children are in back-to-school mode. But not only should we be thinking about preparing our children for a new school year, we should also think how we can best plan our own schedule.

As a fervent supporter of parent engagement in education, it’s very easy for me to say that all parents should be actively involved in their children’s schools, become active members of PTA, and attend board of education meetings regularly. We know that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have attended meetings where fewer than 10 parents were present – out of a potential 20,000!

Today’s parents are stressed and scheduled to the limit. Parents who work long hours are not available during the day, and may not be inclined to leave home in the evening. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

Cindy Krischer Goodman, a columnist for the Miami Herald, recently interviewed teachers to get advice about how working parents can remain engaged in their children’s education.

Here are some of their suggestions for the overburdened parent:

  • Communicating with your child’s teacher via email or phone.
  • Making every effort to attend parent/teacher conferences.
  • Setting aside one day or evening to be present, such as chaperoning a field trip or attending an evening program.
  • Checking your child’s work folder on a regular basis.
  • Reading with your child.
  • Reviewing your child’s homework every night.
  • Monitoring middle school students’ agendas and teachers’ websites.
  • Checking high school students’ electronic grade books regularly, and communicating with teachers if there’s a problem.

Additionally, Goodman offers tips that have worked for her on her Work/Life Balancing Act blog. Here are some of them:

  • Merge the school calendar into your work calendar so you can plan ahead for days off and half-days.
  • Take your vacations during school holidays and use personal days for special events at school.
  • Stock up on extra school supplies at the start of the school year so you won’t have to make emergency shopping visits after a hard day on the job.
  • Get rid of the clutter as soon as it comes into the house.
  • Establish a simple system by the door to assist you in remembering what is needed for each day, e.g., musical instrument for lessons, sneakers for gym. Have a receptacle there so you can leave the items you need in plain sight.

To be engaged, working parents also need to know what’s going on in the school and in the district. Here is my list:

  • Become intimately familiar with your school, school district and PTA Websites.
  • PTA Websites should give you the names of the PTA officers, meeting and event information, and issues for which the PTA is advocating.
  • PTA presidents are a great source of information, so keep in touch with them if you can’t attend meetings.
  • School and district websites should give you the names and contact information of all the important players from teachers to board members. You should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies, procedures and news.
  • If you want to find out about the burning issues and controversies in your district with all sides represented, learn whether there are local weekly newspapers or online media outlets such as The Patch that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it.

Top 10 Back to School Blogs

It has been a year since I started my blog, Your Education Doctor. With the new school year about to start, it’s a good time to look both back and forward.  I hoped that my blog would take some of the pressure off parents and to make you feel in control and empowered. I wanted to help you find your way through the school system so that you could get the most out of your school on behalf of your child. I hope that, in some small way, I have accomplished that goal.

There is no question that parents are their children’s best advocates, but parents can’t be effective unless they are informed; they need to play with a full deck.  My mission continues to be to empower parents to better understand and navigate their children’s schools with the insider information, unvarnished truth, and useful strategies I acquired in the trenches and at the top levels in public and nonpublic schools.

Thank you to subscribers to Your Education Doctor and to my Twitter (@DrMerylAin) followers for your ongoing support. Please let your friends know about my blog, and tweet me your questions and concerns or email me at youreducationdoctor@youreducationdoctor.com.

In the course of the year, I’ve made so many terrific friends online. I want to especially thank Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Danielle Wiener-Bronner, Liza Burby, Melissa Taylor, Suzanna Narducci, Dennise Goldberg, Myrdin Thompson, Mindy Lampert, Joe Mazza, Steve Constantino, Rick Ackerly, and Dr. Doug Green.

I’ve been fortunate to have my work published on a number of other sites, including ParentNet Unplugged, Huffington Post, Parenting.com, Long Island Parent Magazine, Special Education Advice, and TweenParent.com.  As we plan for the first day of school, here are some of those articles, which I hope will assist you in getting your kids off to a successful school year!

  1. Essential Back-to-School List for Parents: The One the School Doesn’t Give You, ParentNet Unplugged
  2. Tips for Transitioning to a New School, Parenting.com
  3. How to Help Your Middle School Child Succeed, TweenParent.com
  4. PTA — Gateway to Engagement, Advocacy, and Access, ParentNet Unplugged
  5. Parents: Do You Know Your Rights?ParentNet Unplugged
  6. Is Public Education Really Free? Huffington Post
  7. Do You Know What’s Going on in Your Children’s Schools? PBC.org
  8. Ask the School Expert: Assessing Kindergarten Readiness, LI Parent Magazine
  9. Do You Need A 504 Plan for Your Child’s Health Needs?Special Education Advisor
  10. Interview about Parent Power, Imagination Soup

Is Public Education Really Free?

As we look forward to a brand new school year, parents are busily getting their children ready for the first day of school. And that means spending money. The average parent will spend $688 this year equipping children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the level of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops.

In our difficult economic environment, this is can be a burden to struggling families. According to figures released by the US Census Bureau earlier this year, the median household income is dropping and more Americans are living in poverty — about 15% of the population.

With more families living below the poverty line since the 1990s, income dropping and rampant unemployment, parents are increasingly concerned about expenses. In the 2012-2013 school budget vote, many districts scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low. But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn’t mean that they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. In addition to school supplies, here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • Tissues — To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit wear, such as tee shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels.  Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments, purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising — School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations, such as birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed set of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school’s field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g., two per grade at a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they are informed at the beginning of the school year what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children’s birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.