Monday, January 30, 2017

The Stories Behind the Pictures

This has been an emotional year for me at home.  My oldest daughter is going through some unexpected health problems that have involved some hospital stays and learning an entire new lingo of medical terms.

I didn't realize how much all of this was weighing on me until her school pictures arrived this fall.  She had the pictures taken at school in September, just a few weeks before she became ill.  Through her illness, we dealt with side effects from medication that included changes in her appearance and in her emotional state.  When her school pictures arrived, they showed a smiling, happy girl that looked nothing like the child that was sitting in the hospital bed.  It broke my heart.  I couldn't pass the pictures out to our family because I knew they might have the same reaction.  The contrast of before and after were numbing.

Then, my youngest daughter brought home her own school pictures just a few weeks later.  The girls are in different buildings because of their different grade levels.  This meant they had different picture days.  The little one's picture day happened to be on a day right at the beginning of my oldest daughter's illness.  That meant that rather than being at home to help her get ready for picture day, I was at the hospital and grandma helped her.  When her pictures arrived, my heart broke all over again.  My youngest is my always happy, always goofy child and her school picture this year showed no smile.  You can see the sadness and worry in her eyes.  Yeah, that stunk.  I wasn't ready to pass those pictures out either.    

It's been a few months now since the pictures arrived, and I'm happy to say that even though life isn't back to the way it used to be, it is returning to somewhat normal.  My oldest daughter is looking and feeling like herself again and even though we still have emotionally difficult days, it is getting better.  My youngest daughter still worries about big sister but the silliness and laughter have returned.  I even passed the school pictures out to family at Christmas.  The pictures will always bring me a twinge of sadness, but they are also a reminder of how strong we can be as a family. 

This entire experience has taught me many lessons, some personal and some professional.  One of the things it has reminded me, is that every student comes to us with a story.  My daughters' stories are complicated and emotional.  I need to remember the same may be true for many of my students (and teachers).  Whether it is struggling with illness, complicated living situations, or a host of other things, I hope that I will always remember that every child has a story.  Every story is different.  Every child needs someone who will listen to that story. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

I Almost Pulled My Hair Out!

LUNGES & LATTES - Lunges & Lattes Blog

It seriously took all my patience to not pull my hair out. 

What was I doing that was so nerve-wracking?  I was letting my daughters type an email to our family members.  They composed the email together and my oldest daughter did well, but when the little one stepped in to help, oh boy.  She had trouble finding the correct keys and took five minutes to type one sentence.  It was enough to put this tired mom over the edge.  So what did I do?  Nothing.  I let her type the email all by herself.  When she was done, thankfully I still had hair and she was super proud of herself.

Sometimes the hardest job as a parent is to not step in to help or take over.  Whether it is chores or homework, we have to remember kids often learn the most when we give them some independence.  If they want or need our help, they will let us know but until then it is okay to give them some space to grow on their own.  The control freak in me will have to take a break, and hopefully I'll still have some hair and some independent, confident daughters when the day is done.    

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Questions I Wish I Had Asked

I recently attended a training on Youth Mental Health First Aid.  The training was excellent, and I highly recommended it for anyone who interacts with adolescents - not just educators, but parents, grandparents, volunteers, anyone.  Seriously, if this training is offered near you, please go.

I have always considered myself to be a good listener, but this course moved beyond that.  It taught me not only how to listen, but also how to find help for those struggling with mental health challenges.  Too often people do not want to talk about mental health but we should.  Whether it is depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse or bipolar disorder, there is a good chance that someone around you is impacted.  I learned that 22% of kids age 13-18 have a mental or addictive disorder.* That is one in five.  Think about your own circle of family and friends.  Do you have someone that might fit in this category?  I do.

For me, the hardest part of the day was when we moved to the discussion of suicide.  The discussion was good and productive.  I learned the signs I should look for and the questions I should ask.  I have a dear friend that took her own life a little over a year ago.  The loss of my friend is still raw, so I will admit I had to leave the room for a bit during these discussions.  As we were asked to role play how to talk to someone that might be considering suicide, all I could think of was how much I wish I had taken this training earlier.  Perhaps then I would have known what to ask.  Getting teary eyed in front of my colleagues was not in my plan for the day, but hey principals have emotions too.  I know you are shocked to hear that, right? 

Moving forward, I feel like I am now better prepared to help someone in need.  Whether that someone is a member of my family, a friend or a student, I feel like I have a better understanding of how to listen and how to provide nonjudgemental help.

If you have a moment, check out the Mental Health First Aid Website.  If you have more than a moment, attend a training.  I bet you will learn something and maybe even save a friend.

*Kitchner, B. (2012). Youth mental health first aid USA: For adults assisting young people. Baltimore, MD: Mental Health Association of Maryland.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Opening the Door Through Pictures

Mom: "How was your day?"

Lovely but not very talkative child: "Fine."

Mom: "What did you do today?"

Child: "I don't know, stuff"

Sound like a conversation at your house? Mine too. It is a conversation that happens in many households.

As an educator, I am trying to shake this up. I want moms and dads to know what happened at school. I cannot communicate verbally with every family each day, but I can open a window to the school through pictures.

At the beginning of each school year, and as new students enroll, they are given a photo opt out form. This form lets families know that I love to share the great things that are happening at our school through the newspaper and also through social media. If parents do not want their child's picture included, they just need to sign the opt-out form.

I have a Twitter account @mrs_schwartz where I try to tweet pictures throughout the week. Videos are shared through our district's Facebook and YouTube accounts. In addition, I have teachers and a wonderful PTO that share pictures through Twitter and Facebook. We used to share pictures only on our district website, but we realized that was not always effective. In order for parents to see the pictures, they had to make a conscience decision to visit the website periodically. Just what busy families need, another thing on the to do list. Instead we went to where moms and dads already were - Facebook and Twitter.

In my other role as mom, I have seen just how wonderful this can be for parents. My daughter is a Girl Scout and her troop has a Facebook page. Recently they did one of those over night trips to the zoo. This Nervous-Nellie of a mother kissed my daughter good-bye and hoped she would not be eaten by a lion. Okay, I know the lions have not eaten a Girl Scout in a long time, if ever, but still this mom worries. Her troop leaders were awesome though. Not only did they protect my daughter from the lions, they took pictures throughout the trip and posted them to the troop's Facebook page. I could see that my daughter was not missing any limbs courtesy of those hungry lions and sure enough she had a big smile on her face throughout the night! Also, when she came home I had tons of conversation starters. "Hey, tell me about that food you were making for the polar bears." and "What did you think of that night hike through the zoo?" Would she have talked about these things without me seeing the pictures? Maybe, but it sure was nice to have that starting point. In addition, my daughter loves to go back and look at the pictures now that the trip is over. It is like her own little scrap book.

That's what I want for the families in my school. I want them to see what is happening in the building. I know that moms and dads are busy and cannot always come in, so let me open the door through pictures.

We have good stuff happening and I want you to see it!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Shiny Stones

Frequently people ask me what the discipline system looks like in my home.  I have two elementary school age daughters, and to be honest the system has changed over the years.  The girls' needs have changed, and I have learned more too.  Parenting is hard work!  Things are always changing! 

The current system I am using came after I realized I needed to practice what I preach.  At school, I am frequently talking about the importance of positive behavior reinforcement.  I was doing some positive reinforcement at home with verbal praise and of course hugs, but I realized I needed to do more.  I was finding myself prompting, reminding, nagging and then getting angry way too often, so several months ago I decided it was time to shake it up.

I pulled out a jar of fancy, shiny stones and a cup with each girls' names on it.  I explained to my daughters that they could earn stones for good behavior.  Each stone would be cashed in later for electronics time.  At first, I was giving stones left and right and each stone was worth two minutes of electronics time.  I made sure to give out a lot of stones at first because I wanted the girls to buy into the system, and I wanted them to see what good behavior looked like.  It worked great!  I was passing out stones for good manners, getting ready quickly for school, etc.  They were totally motivated and were working hard to show good behavior in order to earn a stone.  Plus an added bonus -  when the girls cashed in their stones, they were calculating how much electronic time they earned. (secret math lesson!)  Another perk - I didn't have to be the electronics police anymore.  We went from me telling them when they needed to put the electronics down, to the girls knowing how much time they had bought and taking care of it themselves.  They would set the timer and when the timer went off, they were done.

After a few weeks, I knew we were ready to pull back a bit.  I still passed out stones but not as frequently.  As a result, I also made the stones worth more.  Each stone was now worth five minutes of electronics time.  It still worked!  

Several months later it is still working.  There are of course moments when I nag and get angry, but not nearly as much as before.  There's a more positive vibe in the house, and that is awesome.  Also my girls are using way less electronic time.  They are saving their stones to cash in for longer chunks of time (usually about 20-30 minutes), so electronics are used much more sparingly.

Will this method work forever?  I wish!  Realistically though, I know it probably won't.  My kids' needs will change and the system will probably need to change too, but for now, positive behavior is being reinforced, my kids are motivated, and I'm not a grumpy mom (usually).  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My Bucket is Overflowing (& That's A Good Thing)

The 2013/2014 school year has come to a close, and I am happy to look back and say it was a good year.  Every year has some bumps in the road, but this one was pretty good overall.

One of the things we did differently this year was talking about filling buckets.  I began the year by visiting every classroom the first week of school and reading, How Full Is Your Bucket? for Kids by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer. The book is about how everyone has an invisible bucket.  When our buckets are full, we feel great.  When our buckets are empty, we feel pretty awful.  We fill buckets through kind words and actions and empty buckets through negative actions.  This sparked great conversations with the students regarding how to fill one another's buckets, and I LOVED getting a chance to go into classrooms and talk to kids right off the bat.   

In the front hallway we created a display about bucket filling.  I told the students that the teachers and I would be looking and listening for bucket fillers.  When we saw bucket filling, students were given a water droplet to fill out describing their bucket filling action.  The water droplets were then added to our display in the hallway.  The kids and I talked about how awesome it would be to see a wall full of water droplets at the end of the year.  We discussed how a school full of bucket fillers would be a pretty amazing place to attend.

All year long, the teachers, aides and I watched and listened for bucket fillers and recognized them accordingly.  It was pretty cool.  As the year went on I saw more students doing little things like holding the door for one another, helping someone who dropped their books and helping one another in the cafeteria.  Those little things added up and made our school a better place.  In turn, if someone made a poor choice, I used the bucket analogy to help the student understand how his or her actions emptied someone else's bucket.

Looking back, I know there were times when I got a little lax and forgot to watch for and celebrate bucket filling, but in all I think it was a pretty good year.  I know my bucket was overflowing and that was because of all our awesome students and staff.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Real Money, Real Learning

If a purse-snatcher ever crossed my path, he or she would be so disappointed.  I usually have about three dollars on me and a handful of change.  Purse-snatchers take note; my purse is so not worth it.

So many of the money transactions in my household take place using debit cards, checks or online banking that my children don't often see me spend much real cash.  Well, except for the ice cream stand.  I can always dig up some cash for a trip to the ice cream stand.

This limited exposure to the use of "real" money is something that I've noticed is becoming a problem at school.  Kids just do not get enough practice with real money anymore.  Even student lunches are usually paid for using a prepaid debit system.  Kids swipe a card, enter a pin number, or in my daughter's case a scan of her finger, and money is electronically taken out of their accounts.  Kids are not getting enough practice counting change, and it shows.   

To give my own two daughters practice with real money, we use allowances at our house.  We have a chore chart from which my daughters select chores to complete.  Each completed chore receives a sticker on the chart.  At the end of the week we count up the number of stickers they each earned.  Each sticker is equal to twenty-five cents.  I know it's not big money, but to them it adds up quickly. 

They both quickly learned that four quarters equal a dollar, and let's face it those big fancy dollars are what they really want.  They have learned that the more chores they complete, the more money they earn and that helps a lot when they really, really, really want to purchase that beautiful toy they saw.  They are also learning that sometimes it is better to save their money.  My oldest daughter (second grade) has realized that she wants to save her money to buy souvenirs on our next vacation.   

This system works for our family for several reasons.
1. I'm a busy mom who needs some help around the house and that chore chart helps (even if it is just a little).
2. My daughters are learning to be responsible.
3. The girls are learning how to count money.
4.  They have realized that things aren't free, and if they want something they have to earn it.

As a side note, not every chore earns them stickers.  Some chores they just have to do, such as picking up their toys. 

Whether it is an allowance system, or some other method, I strongly encourage every family to give their children experiences with "real" money.  At school we work on counting money, but I promise you it is those real world experiences at home that really help students to understand and appreciate the value of "real" money.

This was a bad week for beds and floors at my house.  Oh my!  Maybe we will get to those later in the week.