August 24, 2021
[00:00:00] Cindy Lopez:
Welcome back to Voices of Compassion, CHC’s podcast series providing courage, connection and compassion, highlighting topics that matter to our community, our parents, families, educators and other professionals. My name is Cindy Lopez. We know that you’re getting ready to go back to school or maybe you already have. You know it’s going to be different, but you’re not sure how different or really what to expect. How can you as a parent help to prepare your child and set expectation that’ll provide the foundation to start the school year off on the right foot. Listen in to this conversation with Chris Harris, Chief Education Officer at CHC, and Kendra Fraka Licensed Social Worker and Social Emotional lead at Sand Hill School. They’re going to share their experience and expertise on this timely topic. We hope that as a result of listening into today’s episode, you’ll feel grounded and ready to start a new school year in spite of the experience we’ve all lived through over the past year. Welcome Chris and Kendra.
[00:01:08] So Kendra and Chris, thank you so much for joining us today for this really timely conversation. I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you’d like our listeners to know about yourself, especially as it relates to this topic or anything in general.
[00:01:22] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I think we’ve been talking a lot about school and school readiness for the last year and a half, and it’s particularly important now as we come back this fall. Some people haven’t been back on campus at all, so for me I really think of it in terms of both a leader in our school setting and how we can best prepare our families and our staff, but also as a parent of a nine-year-old and what my concerns might be as we return to school.
[00:01:48] Chris Harris, MEd:
So I am part of the safely returning group, a committee at CHC, and we’ve been meeting quite intensely over the last couple of weeks with all the changes going on. And I think one of the things I would start off this podcast by saying is I hope people are very flexible and adaptable this fall because we’re looking at a fairly uncertain short-term future.
[00:02:12] Cindy Lopez:
So we know that most schools are going back to in-person learning, and let’s assume that everyone is going back to school in person. So what do you think are the most important things for parents to know or to consider as they get ready for this or some might be just starting this week even.
[00:02:34] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
Yeah I saw that on the news, that many of the schools are going back.. And I think there’s trepidation not just with parents, but also with teachers and students. And so that communication between the parents and the school staff is really, really important just to ensure that they’re up to speed on what all of the safety requirements are and that they know what protocols are in place. And that it’s a team effort that not only do the staff at school need to make sure that the kids are adhering to them, that the parents are preparing them for what the fall is going to look like and what each day at school is going to look like for their child, depending on their age and their vaccination status.
[00:03:13] Chris Harris, MEd:
I would simply add to that, that in our area certainly masks are going to be mandated and we need to prepare kids that they’re going to wear them pretty much all day for the time being. I know some of them will be disappointed because in the last quarter they got to take them down, but most schools are re-requiring the mask mandate. Certainly parents need to be prepared that if they are in a school with under twelves, it’s really going to be important that people mask. Those under twelves are still not vaccinated. Middle schools too, without knowing or being able to trace exactly what the vaccination rates are again, mask mandates are going to be expected I think at most, in most schools. I would have parents take a look at hygiene protocols and make sure that the hygiene protocols are similar to what they were last year. And while social distancing is not actually necessarily being mandated, we have been strongly advised to make sure we don’t group kids at a single table. So parents may want to check that out as well, to make sure that those simple things are in place. There may be some temperature checks and symptom quizzes when kids come in initially and that’s probably pretty prudent given the fact that people have been on vacation and been around the country including some high impact zones. So it’s a matter of knowing and finding out from your particular districts or independent schools what protocols are and hopefully the ones that Kendra and I have mentioned are part of that protocol, and if they’re not, parents may want to consider an alternative.
[00:04:49] Cindy Lopez:
I think Chris you might’ve said this before or Kendra, but hope for the best and plan for the worst, so just be prepared as parents. And I wonder, Kendra, could you talk about security needs for kids, in terms of security like health and wellbeing, not security of the campus.
[00:05:13] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
Yeah and I think Chris has referred to this in other webcasts and podcasts it’s that idea that as we go back in the fall, I think many parents are eager for their kids to jump right back into the academics that we’re worried about some of the learning loss that’s happened over the last year and a half. And to really recognize that for kids to be able to learn they have to have those basic needs met for them, they have to feel safe, they have to feel secure. I frequently give the analogy to kids and parents that if you were playing a sport and you didn’t play a sport for a year you can’t expect to go back in and play at that same level you were participating at before, and you’re not going to achieve at that same level you need to go back and build those skills up again. So for our kids to even be able to practice those skills, they need to emotionally be ready and feel safe. And so for some of them, it’s like oh well we’ve got the protocols in place and we’ve got these things going on, so they should feel safe, but it has more to do with kind of the safety of the people around them, right. It’s not the physical safety, but it’s that emotional safety we’re looking for and those relationships with their teachers are so important. And so we really want to make sure that teachers and parents are kind of reducing those expectations for academics and really focusing on the emotional needs right now.
[00:06:33] Chris Harris, MEd:
Couldn’t agree more with Kendra. A couple of ways to do that is to actually encourage socialization and just general conversation in the classroom while you’re really consciously trying to build a community of belongingness for all your kids, obviously facilitated by the staff. And the other part is to begin to set a routine so kids have some predictability and consistency to each of their days, and that helps kids feel secure and that people are going to take care of them. And they’ve got something that they are getting ready for because as I started the whole podcast by saying adaptable and flexible that’s for us adults, and we adults are going to have to help the kids be adaptable and flexible to the uncertainties that may lie ahead.
[00:07:17] Cindy Lopez:
I think also for parents to think about establishing some of those routines before you go back to school, or at least talking about them with your kids so that they know like they can anticipate what’s going to happen, so you know bedtime is going to be earlier. When you come home from school these things are going to happen, right. Cause they really haven’t had a routine like that for most of last year because of being online with school. So just getting them back and having those conversations with kids.
[00:07:49] Can you just talk a little bit about that relationship with the teachers, which is really important both for the student and for the parent. How can parents build relationships with teachers?
[00:08:00] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I think knowing how to communicate in every school is different. So sometimes there’s protocols about whether they prefer phone calls or emails. We may see back to school nights looking differently or orientations looking differently. Sometimes they’re virtual, sometimes they’re in person. But I think making sure that you are really engaged and aware of what’s on the website for your school, what’s on the classroom if the classroom has its own webpage or information page, and especially if your kid has any special needs or circumstances that they’ve been through, you know, there’s a lot of loss that’s happened over the last year and we can’t assume that everyone’s experience is the same. We really have to look at it individually. So, you know, I think as educators, we tend to look at children’s needs individually, but it’s even more important now because you’re going to have some kids that have been out of school completely, some kids who may have been in a hybrid model. And so really recognizing that we have to meet each student where they’re at, not just the group of kids that you’re dealing with and that goes with their parents too.
[00:09:03] Chris Harris, MEd:
So I would accentuate that. I’m going to focus in on youngsters who have either 504 plans or are on IEPs. I think it’s incredibly important, not the first day of school and not on back to school night, that parents call into the teacher and ask just for a one-to-one quick half-hour conversation. And in those conversations, it’s the ability to make sure that the teacher knows what the goals are, what the services are and what the accommodations are because obviously teachers have been incredibly distracted, not only as professionals and having to deal with the masses that they’re dealing with, but also many of them are parents as well and they’re trying to take care of their families, but it is time this fall that we make sure that the IEP services, the accommodations and the goals are known to the teacher so that the youngster is getting the proper education, as we start the fall, that youngster is going to be likely back in school and that means his service providers are also back in school, and it’s going to be a partnership between the parent and the teacher advocating to make sure that those services are rendered and rendered as prescribed. And the accommodations are known across all the teachers that that youngster has because that is what is supposed to happen with accommodations. So I would encourage a partnership conversation one-to-one for parents and the teachersto take place early on in the year, but not the first week and not in back to school night.
[00:10:29] Cindy Lopez:
You know we’re living with uncertainty, right. And we’ve been doing that for a while now, and it’s wearing, but thinking about that, Kendra, I’m wondering if you could comment a little bit on stamina, how, how parents can kind of pace themselves, how they can help their children pace themselves, and a little bit about self-care.
[00:10:55] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I see so many parallels with parents and teachers because this summer many kids have been at home and didn’t attend summer school or didn’t attend camps and I think we’ve probably as parents spent more time with our kids than ever before in the last year and a half. And you know that’s such a gift in so many ways if we can see the silver lining and yet it is a huge stressor to not have that respite. And so making sure that families are managing their stress and taking time for themselves to recharge because it is a marathon. And I think we felt like last spring that we had hit the finish line, you know, that we started to see things opening back up again in June and really we’re feeling optimistic, and as the numbers rise again, it’s hard to keep that optimism. And so recognizing that kids really pick up on our worries, our fears and our stress. And so the more we can model that self care, whether it’s listening to music, turning off the TV for a period of time and the screens for a period of time and just relaxing. So making sure that you have quality time together versus quantity time together, but also quality time with yourself and really knowing what you need. I really, really empathize so much with the families who work multiple jobs or single families, or have high needs kids because even in good times that’s a lot to deal with and now that we’ve got extraordinary times, it’s just one more layer that families are having to deal with, so please, you know, if you’re feeling isolated, utilize the supports available to you, use the parent support groups, use the agencies that can help advocate for special needs kids and families. I mean, I think those are the things that I would really say, even though it takes time and effort, it will pay off so much more for you in having that kind of support in the long run.
[00:12:58] Chris Harris, MEd:
I think one of the things that we have to do because I mean people are going to be discouraged and it’s going to be hard to keep up optimism is to look for short term little treats that we can offer ourselves and our families. So, you know, thinking about, and I’m talking from Cape Cod where there’s tons of ice cream stands that are delicious. And so, you know, kind of revving your youngsters up for a Friday night sunday or a Saturday afternoon bike ride or a swim at the pool in the afternoon those kinds of things will keep people, at least okay in the short run, and, but to have little treats that you’re doing regularly is the way I think to keep optimism up, it’s hard to make long-term big plans. And so my suggestion is is we retreat back to littler, more frequent short-term plans that can keep everybody’s optimism and motivation up a little bit more.
[00:13:56] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
Well and when you were talking earlier too about the routines, I think it’s important to get back in the routine especially since some kids have not had a lot of homework, they’ve had their online work and then that’s kind of what they do, but to then pile on homework for kids, either that are transitioning from elementary to middle school or that are just you know starting to get more academic rigor in their grade level, I think that that can shut them down and, and really give them that distaste for learning and we want them to remain curious, we want them to remain in that feeling of competency, right. And so those short minutes, if you feel like your kid can’t handle the homework and needs that break after being at school, recognize that they might not have had a full day of school before. And so, I think again talking with the teacher, but also as the parent who knows their kids well not just blowing it off completely, but maybe reducing the amount of time or reducing where the type of work that they’re doing so that they can feel successful because if you’re giving them work that’s above their head, but at grade level, they’re not going to feel successful and they’re going to give up much easier.
[00:15:03] Cindy Lopez:
Yeah, let’s talk about families for a minute. Every family is different and they’re making decisions based on what’s best for them, and we know that everyone has experienced hardship over the past year, but everyone’s experienced it in different ways. So that’s an important consideration for parents too as they think about setting expectations for the fall, think about what’s happened in their family, over the course of the year, there could be job loss, health issues. Chris and Kendra, can you comment on that a little bit?
[00:15:36] Chris Harris, MEd:
So on a just a logistical level I think if a family has incurred a major health crisis, if someone has passed away recently, if there’s been a sudden loss of job, uh and the income level is different, that that’s a very important thing to report to the teacher in a one-to-one setting, because unless you’re forthcoming with that kind of information what’s going to happen is the teacher won’t understand that that youngster is in emotional distress and will maintain the expectations of productivity that all the other kids in the class are. And if the teacher is aware that this youngster has encountered a considerable hardship, knowing most of the teachers are very humane and compassionate individuals, then those accommodations can be made for that short term period. But if they don’t know they may not respond appropriately just because they don’t know about the youngsters particular situation.
[00:16:36] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
When we talk about scope of practice you know teachers’ expertise is teaching, and yet during this pandemic we’ve seen so many more mental health needs. And so just as Chris was talking about these stressors that occur, mental health clinicians use screeners to talk about what are some of these things that occur in your life that can increase your stress or increase your depression. And we’ve all experienced so many of them that we’re seeing more of depressive symptoms. And so it’s so important to recognize that we’re not just going to jump back into old routines, that they may take an adjustment period and kind of having that time for people to adjust and get more exposure to things that they haven’t been exposed to in a while, and really understand that it’s going to be the same but different. So we’re back at school and we’re doing our routines, but we are still gonna need to maintain some of the distancing, we’ll be wearing masks. And so really recognizing that kids who want to play and see their friends are still going to have some new layers of expectations that they’re going to need to adhere to keep everybody safe.
[00:17:44] Cindy Lopez:
Thank you for tuning in! Just a note, before we continue on with today’s episode, we hope you’re following us on social media, so you don’t need to wait a whole week between episodes to get engaging, inspiring and educational content from CHC. Our social handles are linked on our podcast webpage at podcasts.chconline.org.
[00:18:07] I’m wondering, how can parents navigate this education system. You’ve talked a little bit about it in terms of that communication with the teacher, which is really important. And also if there are kids and Chris referenced this too, IEPs right, over there in the special education system, that can be tricky too. Do you have any comments on either of those?
[00:18:29] Chris Harris, MEd:
The preference would be for a face-to-face interaction with the teacher one-to-one or the primary advisor and depending on them to disseminate the information to those who need to know. At the very least if something has happened, if there’s, you know, one of the situations that I referred to earlier, there has to be some written communication or some correspondence with a teacher, because when you have a conversation, then people become accountable. People cannot be accountable if you do not describe the situation that they’re encountering.
[00:19:02] Cindy Lopez:
I also wonder, when is it appropriate for parents, if they’ve had these conversations with the teacher and they’re not seeing the kind of accountability perhaps that they talked about, they’re not seeing some of the things put into place that they talked about, what do parents do then? When do they need to like go to the dean of students or the principal, the director, and how can they do that in a way that makes the teachers feel like they’re not, you know, going around their back? Is that possible?
[00:19:34] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I feel like I’ve worked on both sides, consulting with behavioral challenges and mental health challenges, and it’s really, in my opinion, so much better when you put the best interest of the kid first and you really work on the adults teaming together because as soon as it becomes adversarial, I think, it becomes, I don’t want to say personal, but people start getting more defensive and it has more challenges and you really lose sight of what the goals are. So I tend to be much more concrete and kind of listing off what are the areas that we’ve talked about and what are the challenges and getting accommodations put in place for that. Because the other thing is we have to be realistic in what we expect, the kids need certain accommodations, but I think recognizing what is available and appropriate for the setting that they’re in and who else might need to come in to make sure that those things are in place. The timing is always tough Cindy because I think ideally we want to start with the teacher. Sometimes having a school counselor come in can help, but because it doesn’t always feel like you’re going above the teacher’s head to their boss, but it’s another person who might really know the student and who could partner with them, or one of the other specialists, if they have speech or if they have occupational therapy, but I think starting with the teacher and really writing down what the plan is can be really helpful, whether they have a 504 or not, it’s kind of like, what’s the purpose of our meeting? What do we hope to achieve and what are we going to do. And who’s going to do it by when and then making sure you’re following up, not in three months, not in six months, but in a week or two, giving it time to really put into place, but making sure there is follow up.
[00:21:13] Chris Harris, MEd:
I’ve oftentimes recommended that after the discussion, you know, that if particularly the parent is taking notes, that’s a sign that they’re serious about holding people accountable and then writing a very cordial summary, just want to review what we talked about, and sending that back to the teacher, instills a sense of partnership, but accountability. And it can be a very friendly cordial summary, but implicit in that is we talked about this and we both agreed you would be doing this. So, I would recommend that.
[00:21:44] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I also think when parents can identify things that the teacher’s doing that is working and that they like, or even if it’s a relationship, that goes a long way and teachers feeling like the parents are supportive.
[00:21:58] Cindy Lopez:
[00:21:58] Chris Harris, MEd:
Couldn’t agree with that more Kendra, starting with a thank you for something tangible the teacher has done will open up a much more open and honest conversation.
[00:22:09] Cindy Lopez:
So our last topic, as we finish up our conversation, I’m wondering how can parents support their kids to get engaged again, especially if their kids are, as you mentioned this Kendra starting in a new school, or they haven’t been before, maybe they’ve also changed, their bodies have changed over the past year in a way that they’re feeling self-conscious about. So how can parents help their students to get engaged again, because that’s such an important piece, that socialization piece is such an important piece of their child’s mental health and wellbeing too.
[00:22:46] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I see it very similar to the academic piece in the sense of we can’t expect them to be where they were and really slowly integrating them really trying to do some one-on-one with a peer for a short amount of time, doing something that might be almost like parallel play in a sense, you know, you have, I always think that games that have rules or, you know, cooking is harder to do with pandemic kind of things, but things like science experiments or things that you can mix and do together or build together um, because you don’t have to talk as much. And I think our kids are getting much more used to talking online than they are face-to-face and so it takes warming them up and kind of going back through those elementary skills that we’ve done before to get comfortable being around people again. Um, I also think, you know, we’ve talked in the past about prioritizing your needs and it it’s very different I think for people when they’re looking at making play dates, because families who have young kids are really now asking the question, what do I know about this other kid and their family, are the parents vaccinated, do they take health and safety seriously and so it polarizes certain things even more, and yet safety is so important, and so I think school is a place where um, there’s less politics for kids and it’s more about creating cohesion and belonging within a classroom. And so for those kids who are coming back I see a benefit in them being on campus for those who aren’t I think we also need to think, how do we include them, how do we keep them from isolating, how do we make sure that they’re having time that’s not just academic time if they’re not seeing others face-to-face that is still fun and online and doing something that they can enjoy.
[00:24:30] Chris Harris, MEd:
We do know that the COVID virus is transmitted as an aerosol. And so doing outdoor activities is the most safe thing you can do. And so things like hikes, things like bicycle rides, things like playing Frisbee with just a friend outdoors and figuring out what those fun activities can be. Those kinds of things you can do in a small group like even if it’s just one friend and this fall we’ll have perfect weather for that. And so I would encourage families, you don’t have to make a big deal of it, but ask your youngster who would you like to invite on our bike ride you know, we’ll finish up with the ice cream stand or whatever it is. So they’re taking some initiative, which, you need somebody to take initiative to make that connection. And then make it a fun, simple, short, doesn’t have to be all afternoon event so that everybody feels positive about it and that builds connectedness, and it also builds confidence in those youngsters that reach out socially.
[00:25:30] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I was going to go back to the stamina piece cause if you invite that friend who’s been bike riding with their family all summer and your kid hasn’t been outdoors much they may feel less adequate and being with somebody who’s, you know, been really fit and active. So I think, again, timing, like you said, Chris, a short activity, making sure you practice your bike ride before you go, um, just so you can set them up for success the best way possible.
[00:25:54] Cindy Lopez:
So Kendra and Chris, you’ve given us a lot to think about, for parents to think about as they’re going back to school and as parents are setting expectations for the fall is to consider again the social emotional health and wellbeing of their kids over the academic piece. We all know that there has been some learning loss, and I think parents are anxious about that and maybe some kids too, but know that your schools and your teachers are aware of that too and just meeting the child where they’re at is important. So, any comments, Chris or Kendra that you want to leave with our listeners?
[00:26:39] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
I was just going to say that I really think, being kind and forgiving of yourself and others. We’re all doing the best that we can, and I think, again, it’s going to be our next marathon that we’re training for and not knowing what the obstacles are going to be or how long the race is going to be, that you really have to be prepared that it may be harder than you think. You have to embrace those successes and really focus on the little things and being grateful for the things you have because I think it’s easy to get down that dark hole, right of feeling more anxious and then your kids pick up on that, so practicing gratitude each day can really be helpful.
[00:27:21] Chris Harris, MEd:
I think if there’s two words that we need to eliminate from everybody’s vocabulary this fall it’s catching up. The situation isn’t right for us to do it. As Kendra said, we need to meet the kids where they are, we need to be grateful for what we have and that there will be a time when academic rigor can re-escalate to another level. But right now is not the time to be asking teachers or kids to try to catch up with that learning loss. It’s just not right now.
[00:27:49] Cindy Lopez:
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights, expertise with us today. To our listeners, so glad that you joined us, and we hope that you’ll join us again next week for our next Voices of Compassion podcast episode and Chris and Kendra thank you again so much.
[00:28:07] Kendra Fraka, MSW:
Thank you for having us!
[00:28:08] Chris Harris, MEd:
[00:28:09] Cindy Lopez: Find us online at podcasts.chconline.org. Also, please follow us on our socials. Find us on Facebook at chc.paloalto and Twitter and Instagram at CHC_paloalto. You can also visit our YouTube channel at chconlinepaloalto. And we are on LinkedIn. Subscribe to Voices of Compassion on Apple podcasts, Spotify and other podcast apps, and sign up for a virtual village email list so you never miss an update or an episode. I always love to hear from you so send me an email or a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a rating and review. We look forward to you tuning in each week.