Talk. Your Children Really Do Hear You.

If you are reading this, you likely play an integral role in helping young people succeed. On behalf of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), I want to thank you for your commitment to youth. I also want to warn you about underage drinking, a threat to our young people that we are paying special attention to at SAMHSA.

Underage drinking has been a longstanding, persistent problem—so much so that some have decided it’s just something children go through. Many have forgotten how seriously alcohol can undermine a young person’s life goals. Yet, research shows that underage drinking is associated with academic problems; unintended, unwanted, or unprotected sexual activity; drug use;injury or death from accidents;and alcohol can harm the developing brain. Further, people who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol problems as adults than those who begin drinking at 21 or older.

That is why SAMHSA, together with partners including the PTA, launched the “Talk. They Hear You.” underage drinking prevention campaign. The campaign empowers parents and caregivers to talk with their children as young as 9 years old about alcohol. It also helps parents be effective in these sometimes tough conversations with tools such as Start the Talk.


This campaign targets parents and caregivers because research shows they have a significant influence on young people’s decisions about drinking alcohol.

Believe it or not, your children listen to you. So it is important to talk with them early and often. Here are some conversation tips from our experts:

  1.  Show you disapprove of underage drinking.
  2. Show you care about your child’s happiness and well-being.
  3. Show you’re a good source of information about alcohol.
  4. Show you’re paying attention and you’ll notice if your child drinks.
  5. Build your child’s skills and strategies for avoiding underage drinking.

There are many perfect opportunities to talk about alcohol—in the car, at dinner, while watching TV or doing chores. Try to make your talks short and low-key. You don’t have to get everything across in one talk.

If you want to do more to prevent underage drinking in your school and community, visit the “Talk. They Hear You.” website for presentation materials, PSAs, and parent resources you can adapt or use as they are. You can also consider joining the thousands of communities holding Town Hall Meetings on underage drinking this spring.

Whatever you do, know that on the issue of underage drinking, your voice truly matters.

Frances M. Harding serves as Director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of alcohol and drug policy.

  • Bonnie, R. J., & O’Connell, M. E. (Ed.). (2004). Reducing underage drinking: A collective responsibility. Retrieved from Underage-Drinking-A-Collective-Responsibility.aspx.
  • Fergusson, D. M., & Lynskey, M. T. (1996). Alcohol misuse and adolescent sexual behaviors and risk taking. Pediatrics, 98, 91–96.
  • Tapert, S. F., Aarons, G. A., Sedlar, G. R., & Brown, S. A. (2001). Adolescent substance use and sexual risk taking behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 28(3), 181–189.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2007). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking: A Guide to Action for Educators. Retrieved from
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies. (October 2004). The NSDUH Report: Alcohol Dependence or Abuse and Age at First Use. Rockville, MD.
  • Nash, S. G., McQueen, A., & Bray, J. H. (2005). Pathways to adolescent alcohol use: Family environment, peer influence, and parental expectations. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(1), 19–28.

Parents Worldwide Agree, “Our Kids Need More Nature!”

This post was originally published on the Nature Rocks blog on April 2, 2014.

As a parent, worrying is part of our everyday – it goes hand in hand with parenthood. My kid worry list gets long, but my top two are their health and their happiness, and I bet it’s the same for you.

When it comes to your kids and nature, what worries you?  If you’re like 65% of American parents, it’s the fact that kids aren’t getting enough time outside.


My daughter Kareena enjoying some outdoor time at the beach.

The Nature Conservancy, with support from Disney, recently surveyed parents of kids between 3 – 18 in the U.S., Brazil, China, France and Hong Kong about kids and nature. This is the first global survey to capture how much time kids spend outside and parents’ perspectives on how much importance they place on nature.

As it turns out, U.S. parents worry about getting their kids outside as much as they do about bullying, the quality of education and obesity. That is a big deal to me – nature is as important as these issues! Globally, this feeling is shared strongly by parents in Brazil and Hong Kong.  What’s more, 82% of U.S. parents view spending time in nature as “very important” to their children’s development – second only to reading as a priority. The message is clear; to parents, nature is not just “something to do,” it is a crucial part of growth.

So are parents right to worry about this? The answer – according to numerous studies – is a resounding yes.

Fact: kids need nature. Studies repeatedly show that time spent outside in nature leads to better health and improvement in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the time kids spend in nature declines as they get older. In the U.S., preschoolers spend 12 hours a week outside, but teens? Less than seven. In other countries except Brazil, the weekly average is far smaller. Admittedly, this winter has really been a challenge to getting outdoors. That said, my daughter Kareena probably spends about eight hours a week outside walking the dog, recess, playing in a lot of snow and playing sports.

So what’s keeping our kids indoors? Parents in all countries cite competing demands on their kids’ time, such as homework, time spent on electronic devices inside, or other after-school activities. Similar to study findings, homework and lots of activities including singing, swimming, basketball, playing with her dog, her friends and her devices take up Kareena’s time. With all that going on and all our daily responsibilities, it can be tough to make getting into nature a priority. But, connecting with nature is a critical part of Kareena’s development, so my husband and I work to fit it in where we can.

Working in the conservation field, I also think about the future of us. If kids don’t connect with nature now, who will care for the environment and support conservation and for us in the future? Direct experience with nature is the most highly cited influence on conservation values and inspiring environmental stewardship.

What excites me about these findings is that parents want to do something about it – it’s risen in our consciousness to take action. So what can we do?

First, let’s recognize that we are the primary gatekeepers to nature. According to the survey, children are much more likely to be outside with a parent or guardian than a friend, teacher or extended family member. Nature is not just good for children – it’s good for everyone.

Second, get connected. Seventy-five percent of parents use online resources to learn about nature and the outdoors. Nature Rocks gives parents ideas on where to go and what to do with kids of all ages and in all types of weather.

Finally, pledge to get outside! Walk to school. Hike at a nature preserve, or plan a weekend of camping as a family. Make sure your kids see how much fun you’re having.

Are you part of the 65% of American parents that worry that your child doesn’t spend enough time outside? Do you have any tips or tricks to share to work in more outdoor time to our family’s over-scheduled life?

Sarita Bhargava works in marketing at The Nature Conservancy. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and daughter.



PTA Advocacy for All Students: At Home and Overseas

Today’s post comes from European PTA President, Kris Garst. She has lived overseas on for a total of five and a half years, and is currently living in Grafenwoehr, Germany, with her husband and three sons. She has been involved with the PTA in Europe since her oldest child started Kindergarten. Kris’s post seeks to bring an understanding of the challenges and successes of military students and families, as well as why it is important to support PTA efforts towards military families both overseas and in the states.

“Wait, there’s a PTA in EUROPE???” 

During trips to National PTA events over the last few years, I’ve run into lots of people who are shocked to find out that PTA reaches as far as Europe! In fact, the European Congress of the National Parent Teacher Association has been advocating for the children in DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity) schools on U.S. military installations throughout Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bahrain and Turkey since 1958.  We proudly serve the families of military members, government civilians, government contractors, and others who fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Defense throughout the European theater.

One Voice for the Military Child

As many of you already know, April is the Month of the Military Child, an opportunity to celebrate the amazing kids whose resilience and ability to adapt to the many changes of military life serve as an inspiration to us all.  Through deployments, frequent moves, and separation from friends and family, they support their families and each other as they, along with their military parents, serve our nation.  Over the past 56 years, the European PTA has been a strong voice for military children and families.  We’ve advocated for important change in DoDEA schools, such as the presence of school nurses in every school, regardless of size, and the opportunity for our students to receive healthy, hot meals via the Federal school lunch program.  Beyond that, we work, from the local level and up, to strengthen the sense of community that is so important when military families are far from home and loved ones, supporting school programs for military kids, fostering family engagement, and even bringing little bits of home overseas via programs like the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National PTA Reflections Program.

Not Your typical PTA…

While our overall mission is the same, European PTA Units are a little bit different than the typical PTA Unit in the States.  We operate as official Private Organizations on the military bases and posts where our schools are located.  This gives us permission to operate within the military community, but it also adds a whole new level of rules, regulations, and reporting!  Advocating for our children overseas can also be a little bit different than the typical stateside experience.  We don’t have a traditional local or state level of government, and our schools are funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and regulated by DoDEA Europe at both the ‘state’ and district levels.  When action alerts come through from National PTA, our members must contact legislators based on their official State of Legal Residence in the U.S. (the state that is considered their residency for state income tax and voting purposes).  Our members come from all over the United States and beyond, so this means that the EPTA’s response to those action calls can blanket the entire country!

“But what about all of those PTA action alerts- do they have anything to do with us over here?” 

This is a question that we hear more often than you’d think!  The Government Affairs team at National PTA has been a great help over the past year, helping us to pinpoint legislation that applies specifically to our overseas military community, but some of the National PTA action alerts that come through may not seem like they apply to our students and our schools at first glance.  After all, a lot of education legislation and the funding that goes with it is connected to the Department of Education, and our schools don’t qualify because we belong to the DoD.

However, one of the realities of military life is movement.  The average military child could be in as many as six to nine schools from grade K-12, so today’s DoDEA student in Germany or Italy could soon become a student in Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, or any one of the many states that host military facilities in the United States.  Simply put, our students could be your students in the very near future!  Because of this, we strive to impress the importance of taking the long view and of working toward the best possible situation for our children on both sides of the Atlantic.


Missing Friends, Missing Bonding Time


Logan Dean poses with Reflections art on display at National PTA headquarters.

Military children are some of the most resilient that there is. Growing up can be tough when there is always the possibility of living without a parent or caregiver due to deployment or having to uproot and move multiple times when duty stations change.

Logan Dean is one of the 1.2 million military children of active duty members worldwide. The 10-year-old’s father, Mike Dean is in the Army currently stationed away from home at Fort Bragg in N.C. Logan lives in Virginia with his mother Heather Dean, who works at National PTA.

Logan sat down with PTA’s One Voice to share his thoughts and experiences as a military child.

One Voice: What it is like having a dad who is in the military?

Logan: It’s like most of the time you can only see your dad once a week. A lot of times he’s out so you don’t have time for like father/son bonding or anything like that so you kind of get lonely after a while and honestly it’s not very easy. It’s not really very easy having a dad that’s in the military in my opinion. The hardest part is dealing with all these feelings.

One Voice: What do you like most and least about your dad being in the military?

Logan: I think it’s a cool job. He brings me back a lot of souvenirs, and when he comes back in his uniform, he looks awesome. It surprises people at my school a lot and I just like him being in the military. What I hate about him being in the military is he’s so serious. He means a lot to me and so what I really hate the most is he’s not really like a typical dad. He commands a unit so when I’m at his Army base in Fort Bragg, he is always saying stuff about sectors and etc., and I don’t understand a word he’s saying.

One Voice: How many times, if any, have you had to change schools? What was that like?

Logan: I think I have had to move about four or five times. You’re able to meet new people that you really don’t know that well. But you have to leave really good friends behind like the best friend I ever had—Nathan. He was my friend in North Carolina, which is where I lived before I moved here and we used to do a lot together; playgrounds, movies, we used to play Xbox.  We haven’t talked to him in 3 years. I really miss Nathan.

One Voice: What advice would you give a new friend who has a parent in the military?

Logan: Advice that I would give them would be if you sometimes feel lonely when you miss whoever left, just remember the good times you have and it sometimes feels like they’re right behind you, which I do a lot of times and it makes me feel really comfortable.


Creating Safe & Welcoming Schools: A Parents Role

Empathy2Part I

Parents play a critical role in the prevention of bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Often we are placing the responsibility for safe schools entirely on the educational system. Schools and school districts do have an obligation to address safe schools issues and violations based on state law and mandated state school board policies. Many schools have implemented anti-bully programs to address these issues. Typical programs include helping students acquire knowledge and skills to use if they are bullied.  My safe schools programs emphasize the importance of soliciting the pro-social support of the bystander population. Students who are willing to speak up when there is a problem or when they are helping others.

Parents lay the foundation for a student’s willingness and ability to act in ways that benefit themselves and others. It’s much like teaching reading in the school system. If a child comes to school without a foundation in reading, then the learning process becomes much more challenging.

One of the most important things parents can do is to teach children emotional intelligence. Teach your child to manage negative emotions by setting an example with your own behavior. Reflect on how you respond to strong feelings of anger, fear or sadness — being careful to identify and accept your emotions, express them without blaming other people, and respond without aggression. Children learn so much more from our actions and when we model these behaviors as adults.

Many times students will engage in bullying behaviors while not fully understanding the emotional impact these anti-social behaviors have on others. Although there are some children and youth who deliberately and maliciously intend to hurt others, there are many acts of bullying, harassment, and discrimination that are done out of ignorance. Typically this ignorance is due to a lack of empathy for others.

EmpathyThe ability to understand the feelings and internal world of another person is called empathy. Children who have developed this ability can truly say “I can feel what you are feeling in this situation”.

“Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers. The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents” Kutner, L. (2007).

We are all born with the capacity for empathy, but it is not developed without opportunity and experience. As parents we begin teaching this process in infancy by the way we treat our children when they are upset, frightened or cranky. We continue to teach our children empathy through experiences with others.

You can help your children develop empathy by:

  • Addressing your own child’s needs and teaching them how to rebound from emotional distress. When children feel emotional attachment to a responsive caregiver they are more likely to want the same feelings of care and support for others.
  • Fostering the development of self-awareness with your children. Helping a child understand they have a mind of their own so that they will also understand from an early age that others do as well. In psychology, this is referred to as “Theory of Mind”.
  • Finding opportunities to model and develop sympathetic feelings for others. Point out real-life situations that call for empathy and along with your child, generate sympathetic responses and action.
  • Helping children and youth discover what they have in common with their peers even though their outward world seems very different. “We are all human beings” and diversity brings richness and value to life.
  • Developing perspective taking skills. What is the world like when we “walk in another’s shoes and see with their eyes?” Stories from books or television are a great way to practice. Stories such as the “Diary of Anne Frank”. Also, engaging in service learning opportunities to recognize adversity and help others in need.
  • Helping your child develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards and punishment. We refer to this as “Intrinsic Motivation”. The message to children is: Sometimes we simply do the right thing even when there is nothing to gain or lose personally.
  • Helping children see personal adversity as a chance to learn and grow and to recognize that we all face challenges at times. Persevering through life’s struggles gives us strength and builds compassion for others.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”  – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Developing empathy is an on-going deliberate process. As parents we must provide the opportunities and experiences for our children. It starts at birth by being responsive caregivers and continues throughout life through experience. Our schools need empathetic children walking through the doorways prepared to effectively use the programs and skills taught in bully prevention programs.

Spring = Growth!

SPRINGSpring is finally here after the long winter that much of America has endured. We are ecstatic to welcome its arrival! Springtime is a natural period of growth and rejuvenation. Trees and flowers begin to bloom, birds and other animals become more visible, and lawns are once again green. But what does spring bring for PTA? More important, what does spring mean for PTA membership recruitment and retention?

The three calendar months of spring (April, May, and June) are traditionally not the highest months for membership growth at PTA. The number of members reported during this season is significantly less than the Back-to-School mega-membership months. Of course, this connects to the natural tendency for most people to join PTA when school starts, rather than when school is nearing summer recess.

However, on this Membership Monday we would like to encourage, inspire and challenge PTA to answer the call of spring and GROW! Don’t stop recruiting! Proudly display your PTA membership table this spring season, fill backpacks with membership applications, and send out a few more emails to ask for engagement and retention. Help us honor the spring spirit of growth!

And for your efforts to help recruit new members now, we offer your PTA an incentive. For every 14 members your PTA recruits and reports now through May 31st, your PTA could win $1,000! The National PTA Membership Committee recognizes students and parents may be thinking of summer, but the committee encourages you to take part of the season of growth and ask members to join PTA. Membership recruitment is a year round necessity. The 14 in ’14 membership challenge was created with these things in mind.

Let’s roar into spring PTA presidents, membership chairs, and board members! Remind parents, family and community members, elected officials, local businesses, teachers, and friends that they can join the PTA in the spring. Recruit 14 of them to join PTA before May 31st and enter for the $1,000 prize. Much greater than the prize, we hope your efforts to recruit members now, will help PTA grow in unison with spring!

Felisha Battle is the Membership Marketing Director for National PTA.


ENGAGE! With Family Reading Experience

FRE_KindleLast year, Lincoln Elementary PTA was one of 85 recipients who received a set of 10 Kindles and agreed to hold a Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle event at their local school. Lincoln Elementary is a K-8 school with 367 students. Seventy three percent of the students are minority students, and 93% of the students receive free and reduced priced lunch. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacy J. Ponder, a parent who was instrumental in the planning and implementation of their Family Reading Experience last week.

Hi Stacy, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle! I understand you had a fantastic time. How many families were able to participate?

We had about 50 to 60 families that joined us. Most of the parents were fathers or grandfathers. Our event had already been postponed twice, so people were excited that we could finally hold it!

That sounds like a great turnout! How did you get so many families to participate?

We had lots of incentives. We had children’s dictionaries, donated by Scholastic. Every family who participated got a dictionary along with the take home game boards that are part of the Experience. We served pizza at our Experience, everyone loves pizza! We also had giveaways at every station. Every table had stickers or pencils so that everyone who visited got something. We also gave everyone who attended a small drawstring backpack. That was useful for them to carry all of the giveaways home! We even had a couple of large baskets with household items we were able to give away as door prizes.

How did the families learn about the event?

We’d had to postpone the event two times already and had done some promotion before those were postponed. We use our schools phone system called Connect Ed and we sent home the Family Reading Experience Flyers we downloaded from the National PTA website. We also used personal invitations when we saw people in the halls or picking up kids.

That’s terrific! We’ve also seen that there has to be a lot of different communication channels to reach families and that the personal invitations often have a great response. What did families feel was the best part of the experience?

The best part was the interaction that families had. Also, they loved learning new things! I’d also have to say that the technology station was the most popular one. Everyone was excited to try using the Kindles!

I know, the use of technology in education is very exciting! What’s next for Lincoln Elementary PTA?

Well, this Experience was for families with children in Kindergarten through second grade. Our next Experience is for families with children in grades 3-5. We’re having that Experience on April 24th and are hoping for another great turnout!

Wonderful! I wish you the best of luck with all your future PTA events, especially the Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle!

The PTA Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle includes a set of free activities and tools in English and Spanish to organize events that engage the entire family in improving reading skills for students between kindergarten and fifth grade. If you would like more information about the Family Reading Experience, or to download all of the free materials, log on to

ENGAGE! is a weekly column on Family Engagement written by Sherri Wilson, Senior Manager of Family and Community Engagement at the National PTA. Sherri is the former Director of the Alabama Parent Information and Resource Center and is currently responsible for developing and implementing programs related to family and community engagement at the National PTA.

Status Offenses Don’t Deserve Detention

National PTA has been a longtime supporter of policies advocating for the rights of children and youth involved in the justice system. Juvenile justice remains one of PTA’s top legislative priorities. In 2014, PTA urges the 113th Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) to strengthen the law’s core protections.

Today we hear from Judge Joan Byer, who writes about why JJDPA reauthorization is so important to the lives of children and youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

On March 12th, I had the chance to speak at a Capitol Hill Roundtable hosted by the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in conjunction with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The event highlighted the need to both reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), and to have an educated judiciary.

The JJDPA provides core protections for children who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, Congress has not acted to reauthorize this legislation in more than a decade.

Among the JJDPA’s key provisions is an assurance that children who commit so-called “status offenses” are not placed in secure detention. Status offenses include behaviors such as coming home after curfew, skipping school, and running away from home. They are behaviors that constitute a crime only because the person committing them is younger than 18.

The JJDPA provides an exception that permits youth who commit status offenses to be confined if their behavior violates a valid court order.  This exception has come under fire because of the many harmful effects it has on juveniles. As a result, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) recently introduced H.R. 4123, legislation that would prohibit courts from placing youth in locked detention for status offenses.

While many states have already eliminated this exception, 22 states still use it. My home state of Kentucky is among those that continue to permit judges to use the exception. This decision comes with a price tag though. Last year alone, Kentucky spent $6 million on detention for status offenders. In 2010, more than 100 of Kentucky’s children were placed in locked confinement. It cost our children and families as well.

Many of these children are like Sara*, a young lady who came before me recently in the Jefferson County, Ky., court over which I preside. Sara is the sort of young woman who many of us know. She is thin, blonde, and until recently had excelled academically, taking all AP classes at her high-performing Louisville, Ky., high school. By the time she came before me, however, she was failing her classes. She ended up in court because she had missed 38 days of school, behavior that constitutes a status offense in my jurisdiction.

It didn’t take long for me to notice the similarities between Sara and other children who are accused of status offenses. For Sara, like so many others, the behaviors that had led her to stand before me that day were part of a larger issue that required a solution other than confinement.

Shortly after being elected to the bench, I realized what a disservice it is to yell at and embarrass juveniles who come before the court for status offenses. These youth have already been yelled at and experienced trauma in their lives. In fact, according to one of my fellow speakers at Wednesday’s event, Dr. Shawn Marsh, juveniles who are “deeply involved” with the juvenile justice system have higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than some groups of returning military veterans. Placing our youth in locked detention and causing further trauma does not serve their needs.

Instead, my court – along with a growing number of others across the country – has found ways to ensure that youth who are referred for status offense behaviors are provided with services to help address their needs, and the needs of their families. We ensure that Sara, and other children like her, meet with a therapist at the courthouse.

In Sara’s case, the therapist revealed that Sara was hiding in the school bathroom instead of going to class. Sara suffered from bulimia nervosa, and had repeatedly been sexually assaulted by her stepfather.

Sara’s story is just one of many that were shared during Wednesday’s roundtable. She, and the rest of our children, are ill-served by being locked away for status offenses. Reauthorizing the JJDPA will ensure our children’s protection, and that the judiciary and other stakeholders have a means to meet Sara’s needs, instead of placing her behind bars. It will also provide further opportunity for judicial training. The JJDPA must be reauthorized, if not because of the financial cost, then because of the cost to our young people, families, and communities.

*All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Judge Joan Byer has served as a Jefferson County, Kentucky Circuit Court Judge in the Family Division since 1996. She was named Louisville Bar Association Judge of the Year in 2002. She previously served on the Board of Trustees for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and is currently a member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s executive board.                 

Note: This piece originally appeared on The Hill and was reposted with permission from the JJDPA Matters Blog, a project of ACT 4 Juvenile Justice, a campaign of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC) that advocates for reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. PTA is a proud member of the NJJDPC, a coalition of youth- and family- serving, social justice, law enforcement, corrections, and faith-based organizations working to ensure healthy families, build strong communities and improve public safety by promoting fair and effective policies, practices and programs for youth involved or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile and criminal justice system.