The Latest Tech Gadget Requires a Safety Talk with Your Kids

A LifeLock security expert and dad discusses why a conversation about tech safety with your kids is a must when gifting them the latest tech gadgets. He offers The Smart Talk as a fun, free, online tool to help facilitate the conversation.  

The holidays are here and most of us are busy looking for gifts. In fact 42 percent of parents with children under 18 plan to give their child a smart device as a holiday gift this year, according to a survey by Harris Poll conducted on behalf of LifeLock. Maybe it’s finally time for a smartphone or to purchase a new family computer or some other kind of connected device. There are a lot of things to choose from, and these days more and more of them involve having your kids online.

As you gift your child such a device, consider having a conversation about security with them. It’s important to your child’s safety, and while it may sound like a chore, it doesn’t have to be. The Smart Talk is a free, online tool to that’s here to help you facilitate a conversation.

The Smart Talk covers a range of topics, including:

Safety

Whether it’s texting with friends (or strangers), engaging in a video game chat room, or uploading pictures to servers halfway around the word, online safety should always be top of mind. It’s critical for your children to understand that it can be very hard to tell the difference between good people and bad. In fact, anyone can pretend to be anything on the Internet.

Kids need to realize that online “friends” that they’ve never met are still strangers—strangers that may want to know more about their personal lives and habits. Predators may pretend to be a kid, and ask your child for photos of themselves. Kids should be in the habit of treating online “friends” the same as they would a stranger walking up to them on the street, for the same reasons.

Privacy

Your kid is in her room, the door is closed, everyone else in the house is asleep. She shares personal thoughts on social media or she’s texting with friends, possibly sharing pictures. It feels private to them. The harsh reality is that what they are sharing is anything but private. Once something is available on the Internet, it’s pretty much staying there. As the saying goes, “the Internet never forgets”.

Maybe your kid wants to share a silly “selfie” with someone who promises to delete it. The supposed friend doesn’t delete it. In fact, they share it. Maybe someone gets ahold of your child’s smartphone (or her friend’s) while it’s unlocked, and starts going through the photos.

Help your kids understand the privacy isn’t something you can count on when sharing data online.

Bullying

Online bullying through social media is a constant problem. It’s important to help your kids understand that it’s not okay to fully or be bullied. By having those conversations with your kids, they’ll feel more comfortable telling you about when something comes up. This includes videogame chats, where your child may be exposed to all kinds of angry taunts and verbal abuse. If this is seen as “the norm,” it can be tempting for your child to join in or start their own attack later.

Another topic that goes beyond the trend of holiday gift giving, but that relates to connected devices your kids use is the Internet of Things.

More and more household devices and toys can connect to the internet. Toys want to download content from the internet—stories, new game modules, sounds, pictures. They also want to collect your kid’s name, maybe have your child take a picture of themselves with a built-in camera and display it as part of their online account. Some kids’ toys even have built-in Web browsers. They claim to have “child-safe filtering”, but earlier this month a security researcher demonstrated how to bypass the filtering on one toy tablet to access adult material. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Think twice about giving your child a toy that wants to go online. If you decide it’s worth it, spend time with your kids while they play with the toys and be alert for anything the device is doing (or asking your kids to do) that just doesn’t feel right.

Connected devices can open a whole new world for our kids. As parents, it’s our job to help them explore that world safely.

To have The Smart Talk with your kids, visit TheSmartTalk.org


Joe Gervais is a LifeLock cybersecurity expert.

Bullying: It All Comes Down to Culture

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In my elementary school years, I was badly teased, excluded and ridiculed. Almost every day I would come home from school crying, feeling defeated, crushed and not wanting to return.

Only the constant support and encouragement of my mom and dad got me through it all. The strength that I ultimately gained through the process of overcoming the bullying inspired me to create my own bullying prevention presentation, which combines music and messages of bullying prevention, positivity and encouragement.

So far, I have performed my assembly at over 350 schools and 150,000 children nationwide. My newest project, a free Bully Prevention Video Package, is currently being used in over 2,700 schools, representing more than 1.6 million children.

School Culture

According to Dr. Kent D. Peterson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, school culture is “the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school.” During my school years, there were some personas that put me in a great mood all day, and some that left me appalled.

A toxic school culture is detrimental and leads to an intolerance and unhappiness among all students and administrators. A healthy school culture is what turns a mediocre school into a great school, and a great school into an EXCEPTIONAL school. Here are some characteristics of EXCEPTIONAL SCHOOLS that I have observed and that parents should insist upon.

Top Four Characteristics of Exceptional School Cultures

  1. Positive/uplifting leadership—Encourage your school’s principal to be invigorated, inspired and invested in the spirit and demeanor of everyone in it. Culture trickles down from the top. 
  1. Mutual respect—Establish mutual respect. This is the key to opening critical doors to conversation and understanding about difficult topics, such as discipline, etc. among parents, teachers and students. 
  1. Display students’ artwork—Get those bare walls decorated with students’ colorful artwork. Seeing their own creations displayed inspires students to be more imaginative and more invested in their school community. 
  1. Strong and positive rapport between staff and parents—Develop good relationships between your school’s faculty and administration and families. A seamless transition between a student’s home and school life happens best if parents and administrators communicate well and stress similar values in each place.

More of What I’ve Learned About Culture

  • Disciplining works. Condescending tones DO NOT. In my experience, when an adult speaks to a child in a loud volume and/or with a condescending tone, the child either doesn’t listen and puts up a wall, or becomes timid and retreats inside their shell.
  • Become a safe space for them. When children retreat inside their shell, it is more difficult to help them because they won’t necessarily open up to you the way you need them to. Let them know that they always have a safe space in you. Then, back that up by actively and genuinely listening.
  • Focus on the DO’s, not the DON’T’s, and be their example. I attribute the success of my assembly to two things. One, my age, and therefore my ease of connecting with students. Two, my emphasis on the DO’s instead of the DON’T’s. My experiences show me that children want to make the best and healthiest choices, but they can’t always do that unless they see it being practiced all around them. Tell them, but more importantly, show them, what to do through your own behavior.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is: kids will be kids, but they all want to be better. It is our responsibility, as leaders, to help them become the best of themselves. A thoroughly positive school culture will do that, not only for the students, but for the entire school community.

It’s so easy to say we’re going to do something, but it takes something completely different, a true investment of time and talent, to actually do it. Many of the schools I’ve visited hit the nail on the head already, establishing good, safe school cultures, but the majority have not. Help make YOUR school truly exceptional. With more and more examples of excellence, we can make safe, welcoming schools the rule.


Lizzie Sider is an 18-year-old singer/songwriter, recording artist and Founder of the bullying prevention foundation, Nobody Has The Power To Ruin Your Day.

National PTA’s School Meals Update

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My name is Chelsea Smyth and I’m a registered dietitian. I am also the current school meals fellow for National PTA and have been working closely with the 25 National PTA Healthy School Meals Grantees to help as they work to improve nutrition in their schools.
In celebration of National PTA’s Healthy Lifestyles Month, I want to highlight five common school meals issues that many schools face, and the solutions our grantees have pursued. Maybe you’ll want to try one of these ideas at your school!

Issue 1: The Cafeteria Isn’t Inviting or Doesn’t Support Healthy Messaging or Behaviors.

School-aged children are at the age when they form dietary preferences and habits and the cafeteria has the ability to promote healthy or unhealthy food habits. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the healthy choice is always the easy choice.

Many schools identified that the cafeterias were unwelcoming and the items on the service line needed to be rearranged to encourage healthy behavior. We have five PTAs who are going to be updating their cafeteria with murals of healthy choices. Another four PTAs are rearranging items within the service line to make the healthier choice the easy choice, such as placing white milk before flavored milks and adding grab-and-go fruits and vegetables to the beginning and end of the service lines.

Issue 2: Poor Meal and Menu Quality

Working on meal and menu quality can be an opportunity to advocate for healthier, tastier menu items and food preparation practices that improve students’ enjoyment of mealtime. Updating the school meal menus was the most popular task that our Healthy Schools Meals grantees set out to accomplish.

Nine PTAs are going to be conducting taste tests with students and families to gain feedback for new menu items. These taste tests are planned to occur in the cafeteria, the classroom and after school events. We even have a PTA in New Jersey that is going to have a Top Chef-style competition utilizing produce grown in their school garden. The winning recipe will be featured on their school lunch menu.

Issue 3: Negative Family and Student Perceptions of What is Being Served

Increasing parent and student perceptions and knowledge of the school meals program can help increase participation and support. Communicating to students and families all of the all great work our PTAs are working on is a key component to the School Meals Grants.

My favorite example of improve school meals communication is happening in a local PTA in Wisconsin, where students will be making videos highlighting their school lunch program and nutrition, which will be shared on the school’s social media channels.

Issue 4: School Nutrition Staff Need Updated Training and Equipment

If food service teams don’t have proper training or up-to-date equipment, it is difficult for them to provide students with healthy, tasty school meals.

To fix this issue, six PTAs are implementing new salad bars in their schools. Several PTAs chose to purchase new water dispensers to provide student with clean, fresh water as a beverage alternative, some of which feature a water bottle counting feature to tally how much water that the students are distributing. We also have one PTA that has provided training to the food service staff on preparation and food presentation techniques.

Issue 5: School Wellness Policies Don’t Enforce Serving Healthy Food to Students

Ensuring local and district wellness policies promote strong nutrition standards, provide students with adequate time to eat and limit the sale of unhealthy food items can help make healthier food choices the easier choices.

We have several PTA grantees who are working to improve their school wellness policies. These PTAs are going to work with the school-level and district-level administration to create healthier environments for their students. A common theme among these PTAs is ensuring that students have adequate time to go through line and eat their meal.

healthy-school-mealsThese are just a few highlights of the plans for the Healthy Schools Meals grantees. Do you see something that you would like to learn more about? Is there a strategy that you would like to try? Check out the School Meals Leaders Guide at PTA.org/SchoolMeals or email Programs@PTA.org for more ideas and information on how to organize a school meals team, evaluate your current school meals program and make important changes to improve your child’s nutrition.

 


Chelsea Smyth is a registered dietitian who is currently works in the clinical setting. She is pursuing a master’s degree in public health from George Mason University and hopes to combine her nutrition background and public health degree to work towards obesity prevention.

For Food Allergies, a Halloween Appeal: Go Teal!

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From classroom parties and Trunk-or-Treats to ghosts and goblins knocking on your door, Halloween puts snacking front and center. But for youngsters on restricted diets, the holiday’s focus on foods they can’t eat puts a big damper on trick-or-treat fun.

One in 13 U.S. children has a food allergy. That’s about two kids per classroom. For many, just touching the wrong food causes hives and the smallest taste can be life-threatening. Other students have different health needs that require a special diet, including diabetes, celiac disease and many digestive disorders. Like every other child, these children deserve a fun, inclusive Halloween.Print

Join the Teal Pumpkin Project to make Halloween happy and safe for all children—including those who can’t eat a chocolate or candy treat.

Why teal? Teal is the color of food allergy awareness. When you display a teal pumpkin (or a Teal Pumpkin Project sign), you’re letting kids and their families know that you have non-food goodies to share.

View More: http://marciaannedesigns.pass.us/fareLaunched by Food Allergy Research & Education in 2014, the purpose of the Teal Pumpkin Project is inclusion. Here are the benefits:

  • You don’t need to choose between offering either snacks or trinkets, so long as the food and non-food treats are kept in separate bowls.
  • Toys and prizes won’t go to waste, since they’re popular even with kids who love candy.
  • Some of these kid-friendly items are useful as well—such as glow sticks and glow jewelry that make trick-or-treaters easier to see at night or Halloween-themed pencils and erasers that come in handy as spare school supplies.

View More: http://marciaannedesigns.pass.us/fareWhether your pumpkin comes from a farm or a craft store, painting it teal combines creative play with a lesson in empathy. Decorating a teal pumpkin or coloring an activity sheet reminds kids that while some classmates may not be able to eat some candies, we can include them in the fun by offering treats that are safe for them. We can trick-or-treat others the way we would want to be treated.

The 2016 goal of the Teal Pumpkin Project is for at least one home on every block to stock up on non-food treats and welcome all trick-or-treaters with a beautiful teal pumpkin. We hope this Halloween,  children with food allergies and other restrictive diets will spot a teal pumpkin on your doorstep or in your school Halloween festivities, and smile.

For more info—including links to free resources to help create a happier, safer Halloween for all—visit TealPumpkinProject.org.


Lois A. Witkop is Chief Advancement Officer for Food Allergy Research & Education. She is proud mom to two teens and is a parent member of the Robinson Secondary School PTSA in Fairfax, Va.

Tips You Need to Keep Kids Safe Online

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Keeping your kids safe in the age of continuous internet access and social media is tougher than ever these days. My wife and I work in information security, but even we struggle to keep up with evolving technology, so staying safe online is a frequent dinner topic in our family.

With new websites and apps coming out every day, it’s easy to see how parents can feel a little overwhelmed. So what can you do to keep your kids safe? The biggest step is to start with a conversation. And the good news is, there’s an online tool to help!

The Smart Talk is a fun and simple way to develop tech ground rules with your kids. Developed by LifeLock and the National PTA, the interactive website enables families to create personalized technology ground rules together by discussing key online safety topics. These include safety and privacy, screen time, apps and downloads, texting and calling and social media and respect.

After agreeing on healthy limits together, your family will end up with a personalized and official family agreement that you can print, sign and post in your home for quick reference and revise throughout the year.

Our family recently had The Smart Talk, and there were many lessons learned all-around. Here are a few tips that may come handy when you have a safety tech talk with your kids.

Tip 1: Talk, don’t lecture

Lecturing kids about online security works about as well as lecturing them about putting their socks away. They just tune out, hearing only, “Blah blah Internet blah blah chatrooms.” But when you’re able to have an actual conversation with your kids, and get on their level, they can begin relating what they do online and what their friends do online to the issues they hear about in the news.

Tip 2: Help your kids understand that the internet is not private

This false sense of privacy can lure kids into revealing far more than they should, with potentially devastating results (such as harassment and bullying, possibly even leading to assaults and suicide). Talk to your kids about what privacy means and remind them that anything shared over the internet or over a smartphone has the potential to be made public. Tell them:

  • Social media accounts can be seen by others
  • Text messages and “selfies” can be copied, forwarded and shared
  • Information can be accessed on an unlocked device or broken into and posted freely on the internet
  • Location data, commonly made available by devices, can reveal where the photos were taken or where they are located at that moment

Tip 3: Treat safety in the digital world the same as safety in the real world

When our kids are online, they’re connected with the entire world. Would you let your kids bring home random people off the street or from the shopping mall? Into your home, into their rooms? Of course not. Similar to how you teach your child to be self-aware in a mall, movie theater or amusement park—your kids need to learn safe behaviors in the online world.

Tip 4: Help your kids understand that anyone can pretend to be anything on the internet

With social media, video game chatrooms and other remote chat tools, strangers can become familiar, even though your child has never actually met them. Kids need to understand that people they meet online could be someone other than who they say they are. Teach your kids that unless you’ve met someone in person, they are a stranger. Any time a stranger attempts to convince your child to meet up unsupervised or share private information, your child should assume that’s not a nice or safe person.

Bring this lesson to life with a game: Ask your kid to list all of the things an alligator would say to convince a duck that they should meet up in the swamp at night. Then, connect the alligator’s motivations with a fraudster online that is trying to lure your kid into sharing information. It sounds silly, but such a game can help drive the point home.

Tip 5: Sharing is good until you share too much

You’ve seen the websites and apps that ask you to share your name, home address, age, birthdate, phone number and more. Kids grow up learning that sharing is caring, but what happens when sharing information could leave your kid vulnerable to identity theft?

When it comes to sharing sensitive information, teach your kids that the best answer is no answer. Your kids should also know that a majority of sites don’t need all of your sensitive information. Most times you don’t need to add all your private information. Have your child use their favorite movie character as their name and profile pic. Children are clever, creative and motivated. Give them a nudge and they’ll take it from there.

Remind your kids that their friends need to be safe online too. Kids are stronger when they’re looking out for each other, when they understand the problems and have a mindset to protect themselves.

Visit TheSmartTalk.org to learn more about having a conversation about these key ways to stay safe online.


Joe Gervais is the father of five children and the security communications director at LifeLock.

Is Your Child’s School Healthy?

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As a parent, there are many factors to consider when assessing your child’s school…teacher/student ratio, curriculum, facilities, location and more.

These are all undoubtedly critical components to a quality education, but have you considered whether your child’s school is a healthy school?

What does it mean to be a healthy school? Take a look at my daughter’s school, Hillcrest Elementary, where I serve as PTA president. Hillcrest was recently named one America’s Healthiest Schools by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

With the help of the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program Framework, my daughter’s school is now serving healthier meals and snacks, getting students moving more, offering high-quality physical and health education and empowering school leaders to become healthy role models.
Why does being a healthy school matter? Healthy kids learn better. Not only that, but when kids have access to quality physical education and healthy meals, behavior also improves and attendance rates increase. Now that’s something that ALL parents can support!

It takes a village to ensure our children form these healthy habits early. From parents to teachers and food services staff, we all have a role to play in building a healthier generation.

lunch-at-hillcrestAt Hillcrest Elementary, the big changes started with teachers and staff. Physical education teacher Tina Birgen led the charge, coordinating walk or bike to school days, ensuring the availability of various healthy menu choices in the cafeteria and engaging staff in nutrition and exercise challenges.

Hillcrest Elementary also emphasized the importance of family involvement in becoming a healthy school. Parents were not only invited to attend activities with our children, but our PTA played in active role in supporting the school’s efforts. From publicizing events to giving teachers stipends to purchase jump ropes or other healthy incentives, we collaborated to build an environment focused on health and wellness.

When parents are involved, the cycle of success continues outside of the classroom. Our PTA supports teachers in providing healthy opportunities for students and staff, and then teachers support the Hillcrest PTA. This results in stronger parent-teacher relationships and healthier habits at home!

Hillcrest students and staff have demonstrated drastic improvements physically, mentally and socially. Through goal setting and proper wellness education, we have improved physical fitness levels, eating behaviors, self-esteem and overall wellness knowledge. All of this, because we—parents, teachers, students and community members—worked together and supported one another in this essential cause.

There are many ways you can get involved in the health and wellness efforts of your child’s school, including joining your local PTA and asking your community’s leaders for support to make healthy changes in schools.

Ready to join the movement to ensure every school becomes one of America’s healthiest? Find out if your child’s school is enrolled in the Healthy Schools Program and get started today!


Trish Matson Buus is PTA president at Hillcrest Elementary School in Brookings, S.D.

How to Protect Your Child from Sudden Cardiac Arrest

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To commemorate Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) Awareness Month, National PTA has invited Michele Snyder, executive director of Parent Heart Watch, to share how you can protect your child and raise awareness. 

I was recently interviewed by The Today Show and was asked if there were any positives that have come out of the loss of my 17-year old daughter Jenny to sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). At first, it felt like a ridiculous question. How could there possibly be anything positive that comes out of the unexpected death of your seemingly healthy child?

Parent Heart Watch Members Gather at the 11th Annual Heart to Heart in 2016

Parent Heart Watch Members Gather at the 11th Annual Heart to Heart in 2016

After some thought, however, I knew my answer. There was a silver lining—the incredible people I have met while healing from this tragedy. Most of them are members of Parent Heart Watch, an organization dedicated to protecting youth from SCA and preventable sudden cardiac death. They are parents who have lost a child to SCA, parents with a child that survived SCA or living with a heart condition, healthcare workers, school personnel and others—all advocates who work tirelessly each day in their local communities to prevent this from happening to other families.

We know that sudden cardiac death can often be prevented and as a parent, you can advocate for your child’s safety by taking the Prevention Promise and using the Take 5 to Stay Alive toolkit to protect your child.

Here are the five promises:

  1. Determine any risk factors that are already present in your child’s life
  2. Become educated on prevention strategies like early detection and being prepared in case of an emergency
  3. Advocate in your community
  4. Review your school’s cardiac emergency response plan
  5. Talk to your doctor

Each promise comes with the tools and resources necessary to support your efforts. Take 5 to Stay Alive is easy and available now at ParentHeartWatch.org.

Don’t look back and regret that you didn’t take the time. It’s a matter of life and death.


At the 2013 National PTA Convention & Expo, the members adopted a resolution calling for public schools to develop emergency response plans that include summoning help, performing CPR and using automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to save lives threatened by sudden cardiac arrest. The resolution also calls for education about the importance of purchasing and maintaining AEDs and ongoing CPR-AED training in schools. In addition, the resolution advocates for legislation that would fund placement of AEDs in every school, while providing immunity for people who use the lifesaving devices in good faith. Read the resolution.


Guest blogger Michele Snyder has been executive director of Parent Heart Watch since September 2010. In 2008, Michele and her husband Bob lost their 17-year-old daughter Jenny to sudden cardiac arrest. Since that time, Michele has dedicated her life to protecting other families from this tragedy.

The Journey to Becoming a School of Excellence!

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When a school and its PTA make a joint decision to become a National PTA School of Excellence, they are making a commitment to work together as a team to build effective family-school partnerships in their school community.

There are three important steps on the journey to becoming a School of Excellence.

Step 1. Enroll

Step 2. Complete the family survey

Step 3. Complete and submit the Family School Partnership Scan

By now, most schools that enrolled are at Step Three. This step, the completion of the Family-School Partnership Scan and the receipt of a customized Roadmap to Excellence specific to local needs, provides a clearer picture of both the successes and opportunities for improvement. This leads to the decision of which path your School of Excellence team will take in the coming months. The possibilities are limited only by imagination and dedication!

After receiving the Roadmap to Excellence, some teams may wonder where to begin. For some schools, the Roadmap may seem extensive. This is the time to assemble the School of Excellence team, focus on specific opportunities for improvement and create an action plan by following these steps.

  1. Share your Roadmap to Excellence. Give your team plenty of time to review The Roadmap to Excellence before meeting. You may want to email a copy of it to your School Leaders and Board members or even set up a shared “School of Excellence” folder on your Google Drive.Organizing your School of Excellence documents (including your surveys and Family-Partnership Scan) on a shared drive—like Google Drive—is a great way to collaborate with your team. 
  1. Meet with your team. You may want to set a designated meeting time just to discuss The Roadmap to Excellence and your next steps. At your meeting, be sure to review the National Standards for Family School Partnerships. Discuss the joint goal you set with your School Leaders as part of your Family-Partnership Scan.Have your team identify two or three Roadmap recommendations per Standard to focus on for this year. You may want to narrow down your focus by identifying those recommendations that align with your School Improvement Plan, accreditation process, or any other big plans your school has for this year.Your focused attention to making substantial progress in a few areas per National Standards will help you be successful.
  1. Create an Action Plan. Now that you have identified your goals, it’s time to determine how you’ll reach them! Brainstorm with your team of parents, students (when age appropriate), teachers, school leaders, and community members, and get their ideas and input on what they can bring to the table to reach your common goal.Maybe you’ll continue or build on programs and activities already in place, or maybe you’ll move off in a new direction. Whichever way that you decide to go, don’t forget to take advantage of the many user-friendly tools and programs that National PTA has to offer—you don’t need to re-create the wheel! 
  1. Share your goals with your school community. This is a great opportunity to engage your families. Be sure to let families know how they can get involved and help by joining a committee, volunteering their time, or attending an event.You can use general membership meetings, your PTA website, newsletter and social media to promote your program, and be sure to highlight the special events and programs that are a part of your School of Excellence journey.
  1. Revisit your Roadmap often. Revisiting your Roadmap and those specific recommendations you have identified to work on this year periodically will help keep your team focused and on task.Set time on your Agenda at each Board meeting, general membership meeting, and principal meeting to discuss your School of Excellence progress, and don’t be afraid to rework and adjust your plan once you’ve see what’s working and where you may have an opportunity for improvement.After all, every journey has its pit stops and minor detours, and sometimes you make the most interesting discoveries along the way! 

Wherever the road to Excellence may lead you in the coming months, please know that you’ve taken an important step toward a better school community. It may not always be an easy trip, but there’s no wrong place to begin your journey.

In the words of tennis great Arthur Ashe,

“To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

You CAN achieve greatness for your school, your students, and your community! Through teamwork, dedication, and shared goals, you can achieve Excellence.


Kris Garst is a past president of European PTA, and currently serves on the European PTA Board of Directors as vice president for legislation as well as the convention chair

Lauren Van Hemert served as the president of The Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School PTSA for three years. She has also served on the Nominating Committee for the Wake County PTA and has promoted the National PTA School of Excellence on the county level.

Both Kris and Lauren are recipients of the 2016 Phoebe Apperson Hearst Outstanding Family-School Partnership Award.

Consider a “Digital Diet” for Your Family

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As tablets, smartphones and other personal technology devices play an increasingly dominant role in all of our lives, finding a good balance seems to be a tricky endeavor in many American households. Both parents and teens log more than five hours a day on their devices (outside of work and school), often during family dinners and while spending leisure time together. Many people also use these devices for hours each day with earbuds or headphones.

Finding balance is critical for many reasons, including children’s communication health. Dedicated time for verbal exchange— listening, talking, reading and interacting face-to-face —is essential for young children’s speech and language development. It is critical that time spent alone with devices (even on educational apps!) does not take away from time for interaction with parents. This “talk time” is also a precursor for reading, academic and social success. The benefits extend to older children as well, whose brains are still developing throughout the teen years, as well as family relationships.

Too much time on digital devices doesn’t just negatively impact communication health and academic success, it also has an effect on physical health. There has been a tremendous increase in hearing loss among children recently. Noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable problem, but once it occurs, it is irreversible. Earbud and headphone misuse can be especially problematic.

May is Better Hearing & Speech Month, a great time for technology-dependent families to introduce some better habits. (The exception being for children who require assistive devices to communicate.) A recent survey from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) showed that once parents and teens learn more about the potential negative effects of tech overuse, they are willing to change their habits. Being mindful of balance is also key as we approach summer, when increased leisure time often means even more tech time for kids. Here are some “digital diet” tips from ASHA:

  1. Create a family technology plan—together. An agreed-upon set of rules is a good way to keep everyone on track. Schedule regular check-ins to determine whether you’re actually substituting tech time with more quality time together. Surprisingly, most teens whose parents set rules agree that the rules are fair—and parents report they work.
  1. Designate tech-free zones in the home. The kitchen, bedrooms, the family room…there may be one place in your home that you can keep devices out of, as a general rule. This helps with the temptation to constantly check your phone or jump at the sound of every incoming notification. It makes a difference to even have 30 minutes free from tech distractions.
  1. Talk instead of text, when possible. Texting offers tremendous convenience for parents to get in touch with their kids. But texting is not a replacement for verbal exchange. Tone, facial expressions and other nonverbal signals are just some of the ways in which texting falls short (and no, emojis don’t do the trick). Try to avoid texting your child when both of you are at home, as a start.
  1. Resist overreliance on technology to pacify boredom. Technology is an easy way to keep even the youngest children entertained. However, the best opportunities for conversation, learning and bonding are often found in situations that may be viewed as boring, such as while running errands or on a long car trip.
  1. Always practice safe listening, especially when using earbuds or headphones. Teach kids to keep the volume down (a good guide is half volume) and to take listening breaks. These are messages kids need to “hear” from their parents.

Remember, if you ever have concerns about your child’s hearing or speech/language skills, consult a certified audiologist or speech-language pathologist.


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Jaynee A. Handelsman, PhD, CCC-A is a pediatric audiologist and the 2016 ASHA president.

 

3 Steps Forward for Our Children’s Mental Health

shutterstock_75904627It is always an exciting time when children head back to school. They are excited to see old friends and make new ones, and everyone loves getting a fresh start with a clean slate each year.

I raised four children myself and often think back to the day my younger daughter began first grade. I remember how worried she was about going off to school that first day. I asked her why she was so upset, and she cried, “Because I don’t know how to do any first-grade work yet!” I said, “But that’s what first grade is for—to teach you how to do first-grade work.” “Oh,” she replied after a pause, and headed out the door to catch the bus.

Most of our children’s anxieties are just that easy to resolve. They are real but relatively minor, and it takes a little listening, a reassuring response and some modest encouragement to get them out the door and on their way.

At Mental Health America, we can help. We offer a set of Back-to-School surveys, fact sheets, tips and other materials that can help children and parents navigate almost any challenge that they will face.

But sometimes, we need more than that. My son was starting fifth grade the same day my daughter started first, and he eagerly and happily left the house, looking forward to the school year. Despite his enthusiasm and optimism, he began displaying serious signs of mental illness before the school year was over. He attempted suicide, was then hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with a serious mental illness. It’s not really possible to predict which child will have a serious mental health problem and which one will turn out to have nothing more than a passing concern. We hope any issues our children will face will be minor, but it’s a good idea to plan our strategy in case they turn out not to be.

Let’s take three steps forward to give all of our children the best chance for success in school and in life:

  1. Treat mental health problems as seriously as we do every other health issue. Believe it or not, half of all mental illnesses emerge by the age of 14. These are not small anxieties that pass on their own, like the one that my six-year-old daughter had. These can be significant illnesses, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even psychosis. It is critical that you respond to mental health concerns quickly because that can make all the difference in restoring a child’s health and well-being.
  1. Understand that “mental illness” is not just one condition. Identifying the correct condition early is the key to developing the right plan to treat it. At Mental Health America, we have created a website, MHAscreening.org, with simple, easy-to-use screening tools to determine whether that low mood is a sign of depression, or that worry over homework and grades is a sign of anxiety, or whether changes in sleeping, bathing and eating patterns is a sign of something more serious. These tools won’t make a diagnosis for you, but they will give you either the reassurance that what you’re experiencing is typical or the information you need to follow up with professionals.
  1. Follow-up. Parents and teachers should talk together about how to meet the needs of children who do experience or live with mental illnesses, including whether special education or other services might be necessary. And they should always include a child’s clinicians in any discussion of how to meet those child’s needs in school and at home.

This made all the difference for me when my son was in the fifth grade. Despite all he went through, he managed to get through the school year successfully. As for my daughter, she aced first grade and was all set for second grade the following year!


Paul Gionfriddo is president and CEO of Mental Health America. He is also the author of “Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia” (Columbia University Press, 2014).