Teaching Kids the Importance of Giving

Toddler with shopping bags.The coming of this year’s holiday season was heralded with record sales in stores and online. As much as we believe that it is our patriotic duty to pump up our failing economy, this year we cannot help but stop and survey the need around us.

Victims of Hurricane Sandy have joined the ranks of the homeless as they figure out how to move on with their lives. The election is behind us, but the unemployment rate is still high, and there are still too many children who do not receive adequate nutrition.

It is deeply rooted in our culture that children expect to receive gifts at this time of year. But how do we also teach our children the important value of giving? How do we impart values, like compassion and charity? How do we teach kids such practical lessons as the value of money and saving?

There are simple ways that schools try to teach these lessons. They may sponsor a holiday service project. Some schools ask parents to refrain from giving teachers gifts and instead suggest they honor their teachers with a contribution to any number of worthwhile causes.  In this way, families can contribute what they are able to afford – or not at all if they are strapped – and the gift is from the entire class. Here are some ideas for a class or family project:

  • A gift card to a supermarket or department store for a needy family
  • A class collection of non-perishable food items for a local food pantry
  • Purchasing holiday gifts for a homeless family
  • Providing a holiday dinner for a needy family
  • A donation to a charity

There are several humanitarian organizations, many of which would be appropriate for youngsters to help support. #GivingTuesday, a national project started by the 92d Street Y in New York City to remind people about the need to give back particularly at holiday time, was a huge success when it kicked off the week after Thanksgiving. But #GivingTuesday is continuing the rest of the month as well.

Donations to CARE can provide school uniforms; contributions to Heifer International provide gifts of livestock and training to help families improve their nutrition and generate income, and Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program screens children for vision problems and provides eyeglasses. Don’t forget your local charities; it’s meaningful for kids to know they are helping those close to home.

One hands-on program was started by Mark Wasserman of Boca Raton, Florida.
Houses for Change is a national campaign to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise funds to help homeless families. Since its launch at the end of 2010, more than 17,000 kids in over 150 cities have created their own unique Houses for Change collection boxes.

The project was conceived as a result of Wasserman’s volunteering with Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, an interfaith organization that helps homeless families with children become independent again.

“The values kids learn from this project,” said Wasserman, “will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

Using art supplies and their imagination, children decorate pre-ordered boxes to look like a house. Participants take their boxes home and in the following weeks fill them with loose change. On a selected date, kids bring their filled boxes back to the local sponsoring group for a communal donation to any homeless organization, food bank or related organization.

According to Wasserman, Houses for Change has universal appeal.  He noted that it has been adopted as a service learning project by schools and congregations.  The decorated boxes have been used at community service days and birthday parties as piggy banks; at churches as Advent, Lenten and collection boxes; and at synagogues as tzedakah (charity) boxes.

Houses for Change is more than an arts and crafts project, Wasserman notes. “It is an opportunity to teach about charity, homelessness, hunger and social action. It enables kids to realize that if they regularly save their loose change, it will accumulate to a large sum; and if they combine their savings with those of others, it can become a significant charitable donation that will help those in need.”

Houses for Change is sponsored by Family Promise, a non-profit organization that mobilizes communities to help homeless and low-income families. At  www.familypromise.org/housesforchange there are details about how to organize this project.
Engaging parents, children, and schools in choosing the cause and bringing it to fruition will infuse both kids and adults with the true meaning of giving.

Happy Holidays!

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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


Convention Notes

Michelle Obama wowed the crowd last night at the DNC, just as Ann Romney did last week at the RNC.  Everyone loves the First Lady and potential First Lady – and rightfully so. Both are attractive, intelligent, and dynamic speakers who appear to love their husbands and their children. Both value education and the American Dream, and of course, support their husband’s competing visions for this country.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon to use the candidates’ wives as character witnesses, and while both these women are impressive, let’s remember that it’s not really news when Mrs. Obama asserts that “we can trust” her husband, or Mrs. Romney tells us her husband “will not fail.” Both these women are tremendous assets to their spouses, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not electing them to run the country.

Hazel Dukes and Voter ID

Yesterday, I met Hazel Dukes, the president of the New York NAACP. Formerly of Roslyn, the 80-year-old activist said she’s “too busy to get old.” She’s been traveling to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in an effort to help those without drivers’ licenses, comply with new requirements that they need official identification to vote. “I’ve met people who are 96-years-old, are registered voters and have voted in every election; they don’t understand why they need identification now. But we take them by the hand, and help them get what they need.”

On the other hand, the Charlotte Observer reported that The Voter Integrity Project, a North Carolina group focused on cleaning up voter fraud, presented the North Carolina Board of Elections last week with a list of 30,000 names of dead people statewide who are still registered to vote. The group, which calls itself non-partisan, supports requiring photo ID to vote, which Republicans typically support and Democrats typically oppose. Charlotte Observer

12-Year-Old Volunteer at DNC

The youngest person at the Democratic Convention floor is Joseph Block of Westchester. He’s just 12-years-old and a seventh grader at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. He’s serving as a page at the convention. His responsibilities include “running around the hall,” and helping to distribute information to the delegates. His father, Herb, a DNC volunteer, said, “It’s a good job for kids.” Herb was a Congressional page during the summer of 1982, so Joseph is following in his father’s footsteps.

Joseph said he got interested in politics when he was seven years old, and this is his second Presidential Convention. He attended the DNC in 2008 when Barack Obama was nominated for the first time. “I get to hear great people speaking about our country,” he told me. I get to see how things work behind the scenes, and it helps me understand more about politics and government. It’s cool.”

Not surprising, social studies is his favorite subject. “I can’t wait till social studies,” he said. Joseph said he likes learning activities, rather than textbooks, and thinks good teachers “care” about their students. “They’re not just doing it for a job; they like teaching, educating kids.”

In regard to politics, he admitted that his friends are “not into it” and are more interested in sports. Joseph said he doesn’t aspire to be a politician because you get “a lot of people criticizing you, and you have a really tough job” but he might want to work behind the scenes.

Joseph will be campaigning for President Obama this year. He plans to give out flyers, signs, and knock on doors. He said if he had the opportunity to speak to the President, he would say: “You have a really tough job. You’re doing good.”

He estimates that about 70 percent of his classmates support Gov. Romney this year, reflecting their parents’ views. He said that in his school’s mock election in 2008, Obama lost by 18 votes out of 700.


What We Can Teach Our Kids About the Conventions

After five days at the RNC in Tampa, I arrived in Charlotte yesterday to a city rollicking with DNC festivities and tumult. A street fair appeared to strain the city’s security forces as kids with painted faces and their parents filled the streets, along with delegates, guests, and media. I took refuge in the Huffington Post Oasis, where Arianna Huffington greeted guests who were treated to healthy lunch fare, massages, and facials.

The convention begins today with Michele Obama as the headliner. Bill Clinton is the keynote speaker on Wednesday, and President Obama addresses supporters in the nearly 74,000 seats in the outdoor Bank of America stadium on Thursday night. Both parties script their conventions nowadays, and some pundits, like NBC’s Tom Brokaw, have even suggested that the one hour the networks devote to coverage each night is too much. That’s really a shame.

I fell in love with politics as a kid when I first heard the soaring cadence of John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech when he was nominated for President in 1960. I became a political junkie right then and there. I remember watching conventions when the broadcast networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of floor fights, platform debates, and even walkouts on the convention floor — but those days are long over.

More of a shame is the endless 24/7 media spin – telling us what we saw and what to think – ad nauseum – and there’s blame to go around on both the right and the left. In Tampa, I watched the convention each night in its entirety from the convention hall, and I came to the conclusion that I don’t need an intermediary telling me what to think – and either does anyone else. Perhaps we should all try watching C-Span.

And what about our kids? What can they learn from the conventions and the political process?

They can learn that our two-party system is part of our government’s system of checks and balances. It’s a good thing, and prevents excesses of power.

We should teach them how to observe, fact-check, form their own opinions – and express them fluently.

We ought to stop talking about religion in politics. There’s still way too much interest in a candidate’s theology in a nation that prohibits religious tests. I remember being shocked that Kennedy’s religion was an issue in 1960. After all, half the kids in my public school were Catholic, and I had no idea all the previous presidents had been Protestant. If we stop talking about it, it will cease to be important.

We should impress upon our kids that they can – and should — get involved. I was once part of a group of students that Vice President Hubert Humphrey addressed. He said, “If you think politics is dirty, get in there with your bar of political Ivory soap, and clean it up.” It was a tall order then, and it’s more so now. But it’s not impossible. Informed participation is the essence of democracy, and we ought to encourage our best and brightest to go into public service.


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.

How to Prevent Summer Learning Loss

Summer vacation is around the corner – and that means that both parents and kids get a break from the rigors of the school year. If your children are enrolled in day camp or other summer programs, they’ll likely get plenty of fresh air, exercise, and exploration. But the weak economy has taken its toll on families across the board. Fewer parents have the means to afford camps, tutors, and other summer programs that can enrich learning during the summer. And school budget cuts have also reduced free summer educational programs that existed in the recent past.

The bad news is that when students return to school after summer vacation, they’ve often lost one to three months of learning. Research indicates that math skills are most in jeopardy. Elementary students at all socio-economic levels typically lose math skills, while middle class students often make slight gains in reading.

The good news is that there are a number of strategies that you can use to ensure that your child doesn’t lose learning and skills over the summer. In the June/July issue of Long Island Parent, I offer 10 suggestions to help parents continue their children’s learning during the summer months.  To read the whole article, go to: http://liparentonline.com/features2.html

Here are a few of the tips:

  • Encourage reading by providing your children with plenty of books that interest them. Use school summer reading lists and library grade-level reading suggestions. Visit the library often and check out special summer events. Read with your children, and discuss the books they are reading with them. If you are really ambitious, organize a book club with a few of your child’s friends.
  • Understand that any topic of interest to your child can be a source of learning. For example, if your child is interested in baseball, surround him or her with baseball books and magazines. Watching a baseball game and keeping score or cataloguing baseball cards can be a lesson in statistics, i.e., RBI, ERA.
  • Car trips can evolve into math or geography lessons. Instead of the perennial kid question: “Are we there yet,” ask your children to estimate and calculate the travel time to a destination. Encourage your kids to recognize different state license plates, and talk about those states with them, fostering their geography skills.
  • For social studies learning, make day trips to local historical sites, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, or FDR’s home in Hyde Park, NY. Overnight trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Boston, offer a wealth of information about our nation’s history. And for science skills, don’t overlook children’s science museums and zoos, as well as outdoor natural wonders to explore, such as caves, beaches, and parks.
  • Don’t overlook the kitchen as a wonderful learning lab.  Involve your children in cooking and preparing meals, and they will exercise their reading, math and science skills. For example, have them read recipes, measure ingredients, and observe how the combination of different ingredients leads to the creation of something amazing.  For advanced learning, ask questions, such as how many pints are in a quart, or what made the dough rise?

Remember to keep learning fun. You want your children to return to school in September with improved skills and a renewed love of learning!