Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Food Allergies

There are kids with allergies in Indianapolis who are going to attend their first baseball game tonight. In honor of Peanut Allergy Awareness Night, the AAA minor league Indianapolis Indians are banning all products containing peanuts from their home game against the Louisville Bats. As any parent of a kid with a peanut allergy knows, sports stadiums can be dangerous places for their children, with the time honored "peanuts and Cracker Jack" all around. For kids whose allergies are severe, a baseball stadium can be just too dangerous to risk.

It seems sometimes that food allergies are on the rise. More and more menu items and food packages are stamped "gluten free" and peanuts are forbidden in some classrooms and even entire schools. But, according to Dr. Marshall Plaut, Section Chief of Food Allergy, Atopic Dermatitis and Allergic Mechanisms of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the jury is still out as to whether more of today's kids have allergies than was the case in the past. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that more children had food allergies between 1997 and 2011 than in prior years; however, in an article in Vanderbilt  Magazine, Plaut describes the statistic as "relatively anecdotal."

Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat make up the "Big 8," the most common allergenic foods. Although food allergies are triggered by specific components within foods, the reactions they cause in allergy sufferers—ranging from mild upset stomach to skin conditions to severe anaphylaxis—are actually caused by the person's own body. The immune system of someone with a peanut allergy responds to the presence of peanuts as it would to a threat from, say, malicious bacteria. Interestingly, some allergies, particularly those to milk and soy, can be outgrown. Others, like peanut, tree nut, and fish/shellfish allergies, tend to be life-long. And some people may develop allergies in adulthood.

If food allergies are indeed on the rise, no one seems to know why. One theory centers around people's recent fixation with cleanliness. Over-use of antibacterial products, according to the "hygiene hypothesis," has interfered with the normal development of children's immune systems. Another theory claims the opposite: that the presence of more pollution in the water and air and chemicals in the processed foods that make up more and more of our diets are causing children to develop allergies.

Whatever the cause, allergies can dominate the lives of families with children whose responses can be severe. Dr. Jane Choi, Allergist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, recommends that her patients keep food journals to try to pinpoint exactly what they react to. Sometimes this can be tricky; for example, a reaction to french fries may not indicate a potato allergy but actually a corn allergy if the fries were cooked in corn oil. Choi also directs patients to carry two EpiPens in case one misfires.

Trying new foods can be a scary proposition for children with allergies (and their nervous parents); one approach, described in the Vanderbilt Magazine article, is to try a very tiny bit of the new food and then wait at least five minutes. If there is no reaction, it may be safe to try a little more. If the child experiences tingling in his mouth, a skin reaction, or an upset stomach he should not eat any more of the food and should brush his teeth or rinse thoroughly with water or mouthwash to avoid ingesting any more. This should only be tried if your child's physician recommends it; dealing with possible allergic reactions should not be a "do it yourself" project.

Parents whose children have food allergies should be certain that there is a 504 Plan in place for their child and that his teachers, the school nurse, and the school administration know about the allergy and know how to treat allergic reactions. They should provide an EpiPen or equivalent device for each classroom in addition to the pens their child carries. Note that not all schools permit young children to carry their own EpiPen. The 504 Plan should be reviewed at least annually and updated as needed. Parents also need to make sure that the 504 Plan doesn't just stay on file in the nurse's office; school staff need to know what steps to take and whom to call in case of an emergency.

The public demand for allergen information may make things tricky for the food service industry. But for those who suffer from food allergies, the trends of thoroughly labeling foods and providing food options free of the Big 8 make life with food allergies a little easier to swallow.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hillside Arts Interview Day

Last week your blogger had the opportunity to meet an amazing group of high school seniors at a New York City public high school - and to see how a new school has grown and developed into a community of learning and achievement.

Hillside Arts and Letters Academy (HALA) is one of several small "co-located" schools in the vast building that had housed Jamaica High School from 1927 until its last class graduated in 2014. Under the guidance of founding principal Matthew Ritter, HALA enrolled its first students in 2010 and this year's graduating class will be its second. This was also the second year of the "Interview Day" program, where the 100 members of the senior class met with community members representing a wide array of professions - law, medicine, teaching, law enforcement, arts, and others -- and were interviewed for fictional internships in their chosen fields. 

We had visited HALA in 2012, when we attended their Portfolio Day at which students presented samples of their work in different subjects and explained their work to visiting adults. We've followed the school's development over the years (full disclosure - our favorite teacher, Matthew Yellin, has been with the school since it began) and seeing the maturity of these 12th graders as they shared their resumes, goals, and experiences, was a gratifying experience. 

One important aspect of the HALA curriculum is the advisory program, which provides intensive, personalized support for each student.. Advisory classes enroll about 17 students, who engage in a curriculum especially designed to acclimate them to high school, prepare them for college, and expose them to important topics such as identity, anti-bullying, and culture/race/gender stereotypes.

HALA is an incredibly diverse community. In keeping with the population of its Queens, New York location, the students represent dozens of countries and cultures and there are a number of new-to-America arrivals who are English language learners. We were most impressed to learn that among the students graduating this year was one of 13 city-wide winners of a New York Times scholarship, awarded to high-achieving students from poor families. Still another HALA senior is a winner of a Gates Millennium Scholarship, particularly notable because it funds not just four years of college but also graduate studies. While no New York City public high school is without problems -- and the use of metal detectors at entrances is demeaning to both students and visitors  -- HALA is impressive in the education it provides and in the enthusiasm for learning that is evident in students and teachers alike.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Games and Conversations without Screens

Summer is fast-approaching, and for many families this means lots of waiting. Road trips and seemingly endless minutes waiting to sit down at a restaurant, board a plane, or see a doctor leads lots of parents to thrust iPads at squirming kids. Why not use conversation and games instead of technology to make the minutes pass? Here are a few of our favorite ideas:

  • Play 20 Questions – One person, the Chooser, should think of a person, place, or thing ("thing" includes animals, foods, etc.). The Chooser can tell the other players, the Guessers, what category they've chosen, or keep the category a secret for extra challenge. Then the Guessers take turns asking yes-or-no questions to try to guess what or who the Chooser is thinking of (e.g. "Is it furry?" "Can it fly?"). The Chooser keeps track of the number of questions asked, and they win if the Guessers ask twenty questions without figuring it out. And yes, guesses count as questions!
  • Tell Circle StoriesOne person starts a story by saying a sentence, and each person adds their own sentence in turn. Decide in advance how many sentences each person should contribute, or simply let the story grow!
  • Compose Circle Poems – A Circle Poem starts like a Circle Story: One person says any sentence. But the next person must say a sentence whose last word rhymes with the last word of the first sentence (e.g. "Is this the right route?" "We need to find out." "Someone should go scout.") The one who starts the game should be careful to end with a word that has lots of rhyming possibilities. You could use a point-keeping system like in the basketball game Horse in which the first person who can't add a rhyming sentence gets a letter (and the first person who accumulates all the letters in Horse is "out"), or you could just play for fun.
  • Use Conversation Starters – Open-ended questions that encourage imagination and critical thinking can be lots of fun. Start a conversation with questions like, "If you could be any animal for a day, what would you be and why?", "Would it be worse to be eight feet tall or two feet tall?', and "If you could make one rule at your school that everyone had to follow, what would it be?" (This can be followed by questions about the downsides to the rules proposed or how a child might convince the principal to adopt the rule.) You could use the cards from You've Got to be Kidding, a would-you-rather board game available from toy stores, or simply make up your own.
  • Play Categories – For younger kids, take turns suggesting a category and then going around the circle listing as many things that fit into that category as possible (e.g., for sports: "soccer," "tennis," "baseball," etc.). Use a scoring system like the one from Horse (described above) or simply play for fun. For kids who can write easily, give them a minute or two to write as many items as they can in particular category, then ask them to read their lists aloud. They get a point for each item they listed that is unique, but if one of their items appears on someone else's list (for example, if two people wrote "Hawaii" when listing US States), neither player gets a point for that item. 

You'll be amazed at how fast time can fly without the aid of flickering screens. In fact, you may find your kids groaning instead of cheering at the end of a long drive!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Reading

Keeping up with educational issues and news isn't easy. From time to time we want to share some articles and resources we have encountered and hope you find them as informative and helpful as we have.

Section 504
An excellent discussion of Section 504 by Mary Durheim looks at what this law can do for students, how it is implemented, and what to do if you believe it has not been appropriately applied to your student. It's a particularly thorough review of a law that parents can often find confusing.

Adaptive Equipment
A recent article in the New York Times features a public school physical therapist who uses an innovative approach -- and some strong carpentry skills -- to create custom furniture and other adaptive equipment for children with physical disabilities. We love the way he thinks through what these students need to be part of classroom activities and hope his approach, which is very low cost and highly effective, can inspire parents and professionals to "think outside the box" when addressing the needs of students with disabilities.

What Do Students Need to Learn?
As students are in the midst of Common Core testing, and as a record number of parents here in New York and around the country have elected to "opt out" of these tests, it is timely to think about what students should be learning -- and why. Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) Professor David Perkins has addressed this question in a new book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, and you can read an article summarizing his perspective in ED, the magazine of the GSE.

Resources for Children with Special Needs 
This nonprofit organization operates only in New York City, but they offer an array of resources - hotlines for questions, workshops, and special programs (most in English and Spanish) -- for students with a wide range of disabilities. Take a look at a video describing what they do and how they do it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bright by Three

There seems to be little doubt that, for many people, text messaging has become the most common means of communication. Phone calls have fallen by the wayside: If people want to convey a quick piece of information they seem to prefer typing it out to talking it out. This makes sense; texting is fast and easy and one can get and receive texts anywhere, even places where loud phone conversations are inappropriate.

A Denver non-profit called Bright by Three is taking advantage of the popularity and ease of text messaging. According to Bright by Three, 85% of a child's intellect, personality, and social skills are developed during the first three years of life. Since children aren't in school during this critical period, Bright By Three aims to help parents engage their little ones in ways that are proven to develop these important components. Last year, Bright by Three reached over 21,000 families in Colorado. But, thanks to text messaging, their reach can extend even farther.

Bright by Text is their latest innovation. Parents and caregivers anywhere can enroll in the program for free (though data rates may apply) by texting "BRIGHT" to 444999. They'll be asked for their child's age in months, and then the fun begins. Bright by Text sends weekly messages that correspond to the child's age and stage of development. Texts include learning games that develop physical and cognitive skills, health and wellness tips, and relevant information about child development and important milestones. Each text also contains a mobile-friendly link to additional resources. Bright by Text is available in both Spanish and English.

If you, or someone close to you, has a young child, we encourage you to take advantage of this free service. Tips are research-based and timely, and the format couldn't be more convenient for families on the go.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Math App that Makes Practice Fun

We're big fans of the games from Motion Math, and have written before about their games for kids from 2 to 12, which include Hungry Guppy, Hungry Fish, Wings, and Zoom. Now, one of our favorite math game creators has done it again. Match, the latest addition to their stellar line-up of neurologically-based math games, is sure to please both kids and adults.In Match, tiles with either single digits (e.g. 7) or partial number sentences (e.g. 4+2) appear and players must tap the two that show the same quantity. Both correctness and speed will earn points, which go toward in-game prizes. As a student's number skills improve, the game gets more challenging. Match allows kids to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It may be simple enough for a four-year-old to play, but Match provides enough challenge for students in upper elementary school, too.


We love Motion Math's games because they are based on research about the way the brain develops number sense, or numeracy, and Match is no exception. For example, mixed in with digit tiles are tiles with images on them showing a quantity of objects to continually reinforce the link between numerical symbols and actual quantities.

Match is presently available for the iPad for $2.99. Other Motion Math games are available for iPhones as well.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

April is Occupational Therapy Month

The American Occupational Therapy Association has designated April as Occupational Therapy Month. It's a good time to look at what occupational therapy -- often called "OT" -- is and how it can help students.

OT services are designed to support individuals with the tasks they encounter in their daily lives. For adults, this can mean helping them recover from an injury or overcome a disability to manage tasks at home or in the workplace. For students, OT supports such school-based activities as handwriting, keyboarding, and adapting the school environment to promote success. An occupational therapist can help connect students with both high-tech solutions, such as computers, software, and digital tools and low-tech aids, such as writing implements with special grips and notebook paper with textured lines. Services are provided by a licensed occupational therapist, who has trained in a master's level program and passed a licensing exam.

OT is a "related service" available to students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504, provided by the school during the school day, without cost to the family. It can be a "pull out" service, where the student leaves the classroom for a period to work with the occupational therapist, usually in a small group but sometimes individually. Or it can be a "push in" service, where the therapist comes into the classroom and works with the student or students as they go about their daily activities. This is a particularly effective way of providing services, since research demonstrates that skills are better mastered when they are practiced in the environment in which they occur. The frequency and duration of these sessions need to be specified in the IEP or 504 Plan. Some families choose to work with an occupational therapist who has a private practice outside of a school.

In addition to helping students with graphomotor (handwriting) difficulties and keyboarding skills, an occupational therapist can help address such issues as the need for specialized seating in the classroom or on the bus, learning self-care (for students with significant disabilities), and practical matters such as managing a backpack or dealing with sensory issues such as intolerance for excessive noise or school bells and buzzers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Frontloading: Getting Ready to Read

Whether you are planning a trip, getting ready to prepare a complicated recipe, or starting on a project for work, preparation is an important first step and is crucial to success. It's the same thing for reading new material for school. Students who take the time to prepare before beginning to read -- a process called frontloading -- will get more from their reading and retain the information better. Frontloading can include scanning the material for main ideas, important details, themes, structure, and tone; researching new vocabulary; accessing or building background knowledge connected to the topic at hand; and creating or locating related visuals.

Here are some of the ways we suggest students engage in frontloading:

  • Think about the topic before starting to read, taking time to consider any prior knowledge that you may have about the topic. 
  • Do an internet search on the subject prior to reading grade-level material.  For fictional texts, you can read condensed texts like CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. This will provide you with prior knowledge and give you more of a sense of mastery when you try to read the more challenging text. You should also scan the text for any new and challenging vocabulary.
  • Before reading the assigned text, review any questions at the end of the chapter or which the teacher may have given out
  • Learn how to use information in textbooks, since they already have built-in cues to help determine important points.  For example,  make note of all titles and headings; scan for important information in pictures and captions; and look for key terms, concepts, or people that may be italicized, underlined, or written in bold type.
  • Consider developing a written and/or visual time line for historical and narrative events.  This activity can improve your appreciation of time sequences and causal reasoning. 
  • Consider using the website WordSift. This site will help you preview challenging text by identifying the key vocabulary, locating relevant images, and using the example source sentence feature to “skim” the text.   
Not all of these frontloading strategies will be helpful for every student, but trying them out and figuring what works for you can be a good first step to mastering challenging reading material.