The First Back-To-School

Monster school

In the past few weeks, we joined the ranks of parents with children in school. Our first-born headed off to kindergarten and no tears were shed on either side. The enormity of this milestone does not escape me, but we are a school-loving household so although it is a sign of my baby growing another step closer to being a man, it is a happy one.

Meanwhile in clinic, I have been catching up children on their immunizations so that they can also head to school. Some have told me about how excited they are to rejoin friends, return to sports, and prepare for college. Others have complained about things that plague many public Philadelphia schools, such as lack of a school nurse, limited sports teams, and sparse school supplies. Parents have worried about getting services for their children who need help with reading, speech, or writing. We have brainstormed solutions to many of these problems in our short time together, knowing that to truly tackle these issues we would need many more hours, people, and dollars. However, there is so much that we as parents and pediatricians can do to help children succeed in school.

One week in, here are my tips for the day-to-day success of getting your child ready for school:

  1. Talk positively about school! I am always telling my son how many years of school his father and I chose to attend because we loved it. When I know what his agenda includes that day, I act as excited about it as possible. “Oh you have sports today, that sounds so fun!”
  2. While maintaining a positive vibe, I acknowledge the struggles. Starting at a new school is hard! Making new friends, learning a new schedule, setting and meeting new expectations are all stressful challenges for me, nevertheless a five-year-old.
  3. Get enough sleep! Our new schedule starts almost an hour before our prior routine, which means that bedtime needed to move earlier as well. We are still adjusting our routines, but we all need to be well rested so have prioritized this.
  4. Do as much preparation the night before as possible. I try to pack up some of the lunches for the morning and pick out clothes. Although there should theoretically be time for these things in the morning, you never know what curve balls you will be facing and being prepared is important!
  5. Communicate with the teacher. We are lucky to have a kindergarten teacher who has solicited feedback from us and wants to know more about our son’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Even if she hadn’t initiated this conversation though, I knew it would be important to have these discussions before the mid-semester parent-teacher conferences.

Inevitably there will be students who are struggling though and we should all know how to offer help. Children who are struggling in school should receive comprehensive psycho-education testing to determine if a learning disability may be a factor and whether or not the child may benefit from supportive educational services. All services outside of the standard school curriculum are considered “special education services,” but there is a wide range of intensity in those services.

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for any child 3-22 receiving special education services. An IEP should address a child’s specific learning issues and include goals to support and meet their educational needs. This is a legally binding document and the public school must provide everything in the IEP for the student. If you think your student needs an IEP, you should request an evaluation, which includes a school psychologist or other professional giving your child various tests and performing classroom observations as part of a multidisciplinary team evaluation. Then, the school and parents should review the evaluation and determine what if any services or supports the student needs. The IEP goes into effect after a parent gives consent and any reduction in services later on requires prior written notice before changes are made. Private schools are not required to follow an IEP, but private school students can be evaluated for an IEP through their local public school. An IEP should be reassessed on a regular basis.

If your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP, but needs accommodations to meet their educational needs, they may need a 504 plan. A “504” for short is part of the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Any public K-12 student with a disability may qualify for a 504 plan and the list of disabilities is broad, including things like ADHD or learning disabilities. A 504 is less standardized than an IEP and does not include educational goals.

So as we head back-to-school or start out on our children’s educational journeys together, let us prepare for a great academic year. I know there will be bumps along the way, but I feel optimistic and prepared. After all the smiling first day of school photos I saw in my news feed, I hope that those smiles continue throughout the school year!

 

CDC School Immunization Guide

[Portions of this post were previously published in the Sept 2016 QVNA Magazine.]

Exploring the Gardens Around Philadelphia

Schuylkill River

When we reach the time of year that my children point to every puddle of water on the sidewalk and announce, “mama, don’t step in the pee,” I know it is time to expose them to more nature. The steamy sidewalks radiating heat, and bearing too many bodily fluids, wear us down by the end of August, so we ventured beyond the city to two nearby escapes friendly to nature-reluctant urbanites.

Bartrams Garden

First, Bartram’s Garden, a 45-acre National Historic Landmark with gardens, arts events, an after school program, and river boating. We went on a Saturday, when there are free kayak and rowboat rentals from 11AM-3PM seasonally. My dear husband rowed the four of us in midday sun around the Tidal Schuylkill River. We loved seeing our city from the viewpoint of the river. The next time we go it will hopefully be less than 95 degrees so we can spend more time exploring the grounds. If you are looking for something to do this weekend, the Philadelphia Honey Festival will be there with a children’s bee parade.

Out on a Limb

Then, we went to Morris Arboretum, 92-acres of gardens and educational programs run by the University of Pennsylvania. The kids enjoyed running and jumping in the bridges and nets of the Out on a Limb exhibit, a canopy walk 50-feet up in trees. There is also an impressive toy railway, including a hot dog train car that caused my 5-year-old to scream with glee every time it circled near us. I enjoyed wandering the gardens and having my Fit Bit hit 10,000 steps before lunch!

fountain

Along the way, my kids enjoyed finding spiders, squirrels, and fish; tossing stones in the river or pennies in a fountain. They ran in open fields and frolicked among the bees. They wandered a little too far even. They did the exact same things that they do in the city, except when we found a puddle, we didn’t wonder if it was dog or human urine. So while we sweated out the end of Summer amid gardens, we appreciated living somewhere with such beautiful landscapes a short drive from our beloved concrete abode.

Addressing Bullying Head On

After four years in the same nursery and preschool, my son and his classmates knew each other very, very well. There were times that there were little fights between them, but these were skirmishes between friends that were quickly resolved. It seemed that there was no one particular bully, but rather most of the kids took turns having their moment of poor self-control in an age-appropriate manner.

Then, he started a new Summer camp and as the new kid at camp he became the easy target for some more dominant children to play out their aggressive energies. Fortunately we were able to work well together with the school and reach a quick resolution. I wanted my son to know that school was a safe place, however I had hoped that this would be a given and not something that he had to learn. Just as I have had to educate him on other harsh realities of life (strangers, guns, homelessness coming to mind recently), learning about bullies at the ripe age of five became our newest life lesson.

As a pediatrician, I counsel families about bullying often, unfortunately. We screen for bullying at all school aged visits and I tell all parents that if your child has been bullied or you witness bullying at school, you should immediately report this to a school teacher or principal. If they cannot address the bullying properly, call the Office of Safe School Advocate at (877) 730-6315. If you find out your child is being bullied, you should approach the situation calmly and gather information (i.e. who is involved, how long has it been happening, who else knows already, and what did your child do in response). Then, communicate this information with the school and offer your child positive strategies for coping with bullying. It does not help to approach the child who is bullying or to encourage your child to fight back. Instead, offer your child support by assuring them that bullying is not their fault and think through how your child should respond if bullying occurs again by role-playing these scenarios. Make sure you discuss how to protect your child to keep them safe and maintain focus for learning, such as rearranging classroom seating or increasing adult supervision.

For additional resources:

Why I support Philly Paper Jam

PhillyPaperJam

I have never been to Staples more than the year I lived with two teachers. After graduating college, I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with two of my best friends, who were teachers with the program Teach for America. Both of them worked in elementary schools in Harlem, where the basic needs of some students, like hunger, safety, and hygiene were sometimes not met. While these new teachers worked hard to help their students overcome adversity, they also used a chunk of their small salaries to supplement their classroom supplies. We spent a few weekends decorating their classrooms into learning oases for their little students’ minds to seek refuge. I remember being surprised how many basic school supplies these teachers had to buy on their own though: papers, pencils, and tissues. How can you teach kindergarten without these? So when their schools couldn’t afford them, these teachers made frequent pilgrimages to Staples to get as many supplies as they could carry back to their schools.

That was twelve years ago and I had hoped that the state of public education funding had improved, but I recently learned that we were in very much the same place in Philadelphia now. Friends who are sending their children off to public schools in Philadelphia in the next weeks have back-to-school supply shopping lists that include 2-4 reams of paper. That’s right, each child is expected to BYOPaper. What do they need all of this paper for? Writing, art, math, letters home to parents, and report cards to name a few things. These are not luxuries.

So when I heard that my friend Sibyl of Hipster Henry started a non-profit called Philly Paper Jam, I was so excited to see creative problem-solving for this ongoing issue. After touring schools as part of her annual school survey, Sibyl realized that she could use her marketing talents to help local schools meet their paper needs for the year by partnering with local business as sponsors. She picked 15 schools where she had a standing relationship and then the Philly Paper Jam website is holding a contest to vote for the next 15 schools to be funded in this inaugural year. Altogether, 30 schools will have a year’s worth of paper delivered to them through the generous donations of sponsors, who can donate to support a single class or a whole school. Due to bulk purchasing for many schools (and the kindness of Staples and W.B. Mason), Philly Paper Jam is able to bring down the costs for the schools, so sponsors can support an entire school for $1,800-4,000, depending on the school size.

Often schools meet their paper needs by holding fundraisers and supply drives. Imagine what that money could be used for if the schools already had paper? With the money saved by the Philly Paper Jam donation, schools can divert this budget into other needs and projects. Adaire, one of the first 15 schools funded, has promised to start a STEM program and their Philly Paper Jam sponsor is going continue their partnership with additional money toward this goal. I love that schools, teachers, and parents can spend less money on paper and that they can instead fund programs to enhance their curriculum.

Since Philly Paper Jam is in its infancy, there are still many ways you can help:

1. LIKE the Philly Paper Jam Facebook page. This will help show potential sponsors how important this organization is and bring in more donations.

2. Make a donation!

3. Nominate your school and/or vote!

 

[I have no affiliation with Philly Paper Jam or Hipster Henry. I am interested in supporting our public schools and raising awareness for organizations who share this goal. I donated to my local public school.]

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Review: Play Arts, Philadelphia

Play Arts 1Have you ever been invited to a party that was too cool for you? Was it a kids’ party? That is how I felt at a recent open house at a new child-centered arts and play space in Fishtown called Play Arts. But I loved it. More importantly, my kids loved it. They saw the “play loud” tagline and took the challenge (sorry, Krista!). Play Arts is so cool that award-winning, local author and illustrator Zachariah OHora designed their logo.

IMG_2173Play Arts started as the dream of a husband and wife pair who have years experience in wood-working and music education, respectively, that they poured into “an antique swimming hole under the El.” The ecological design and restoration of this historic site is meant to be as much for the parents as it is the kids, with beautiful architectural design and a cafe overlooking the kids playing below. The toys are meant to stimulate the imagination and foster STEAM play: Magna-Tiles, Legos, trains, a kitchen set, costumes, and push-toys. There is a reading nook, climbing structures, and mini cut-out hiding spaces under a loft. The art teacher told me there are further plans to build a look-out tower, monkey bars, and a felt garden. Although already quite magical, the space is still in evolution.

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Play Arts seeks to become a community hub by providing art and music classes, a place for parents to meet up while their children play, and birthday parties. They have drop-in options for classes, in case your child “blows through a nap,” an after school program, and a drop-off brunch option. Membership rates are competitive with similar venues, but the classes are cheaper than most I have seen. I am excited to see how Play Arts continues to grow and the creative ways they determine to use their beautiful space.

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The Fall class schedule begins Tuesday, September 6th. Membership and class registration is now open.

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[I was not compensated for this post. All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.]

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