Protecting Your Children From Predators

With all the news about sexual abuse in schools, how can you keep your kids safe?

This morning, I opened the news to see that yet another sexual predator was caught. This time it was a woman- a school administrator at a local private school. A few months ago, a male teacher was reported. Before that, a female teacher. Before that, a special education aide.

School is not necessarily a safe place, but your children are legally required to attend. And unless you pull them out of school and decide to homeschool your children, you have to trust the administration and staff to be decent, non-abusive people. As we have seen, both public and private schools have problems with sexual abuse.

So what can you do as a parent or caregiver to make sure your child is safe?

Talk to them about abuse. Sit down with your child and tell them that there are adults out there who hurt children and touch them on their private parts or ask the kids to touch the adult’s private parts. Make sure they know that they should tell you if it happens to them or someone they know and it’s never something to keep secret.

Tell them that those adults are wrong to do that to kids, that it’s never the kid’s fault, and we can’t catch the bad adults without kids telling someone when it happens.

Tell them that abuse can happen from strangers, but also from adults at school or other children or even from family members. It’s not okay no matter who is the abuser.

Tell them that the bad adults know what they’re doing is wrong and they lie to kids to make them too scared to tell. Bad adults tell kids that nobody will believe them if they tell, or that the adult will hurt their pet or friend or sibling if they tell. Make sure your child knows that those are lies- that when a child tells a good adult about abuse, the abuser is the one who gets in trouble and that the good adults will make sure the child’s pets and friends and siblings are safe too.

Tell your child it’s okay to talk to you if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that you’ll believe them and mean it. Believe them even if they name someone you think wouldn’t be an abuser- abusers often groom the parents as much as the kids, making themselves into someone you’d absolutely trust with your children.

If your child does say that someone abused them or someone they know, call the police immediately. You don’t have to verify their claim, confront the abuser, or even be certain that it happened. The police will work with child protective services to conduct an interview of everyone involved. Their interviewers are trained in how to ask children about sexual abuse, and the police will make sure the kids are safe until the investigation can be completed.

Childhood Friendships and Fights

Children’s friendships can be turbulent. Here’s a quick guide to how and when to intervene.

I get a lot of questions from parents of elementary aged children about what normal childhood friendships look like. Whether you see your child making bad friendships, getting bullied by friends, or consistently having fights with friends, it’s hard to know when and how to intervene as the parent.

Here are three strategies to avoid and three to employ:

Don’t:

  1. Tell your child to stop hanging out with a bully or bad friend. Why? If it was that easy, they’d do it already. There’s something about that particular person that keeps your child coming back. It is important to figure out why your child can’t get away from the bad relationship and address that as the core issue. Friends who bully are usually hot and cold- one day your child is this kid’s best friend and everything is great, then suddenly everything changes. It’s almost like gambling.
  2. Jump in immediately to fix the situation. Let your child come up with the ideas about what to do with a bad friend or a nasty fight. Use your judgment to help guide them toward effective, appropriate solutions, but the child should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the solution. Why? Because you’re not going to be there at school or on the playground with your child. If they come up with the solution, they’re more likely to try it out.
  3. Ask the teacher to monitor the situation. Teachers have a job to do aside from reporting on individual students’ behavior. If something big happens that you need to know about, the teacher will probably tell you.

Do:

  1. Point out aspects of good and bad friendships whenever they come up. If your child shares a story about how Ron shared his sandwich with someone whose lunch fell in a puddle, make a big deal about how Ron was a good friend by showing kindness and sharing. And when your child tells you about how Sarah wouldn’t include Tiffany in tag at recess, it’s enough for you to comment that Sarah wasn’t being a good friend and how excluding people is unkind. You can also do this as you’re watching TV with your kids. It’s actually a bit easier with TV because the simple storylines almost always end with good outcomes for good behavior and negative consequences for bad behavior.
  2. Model good relationships. When you have a fight with your children, how do you repair the relationship? When Mom and Dad are mad, how do they treat each other? The way you act is what the child sees. If you have turbulent, dramatic relationships with your friends and spouse, your child is more likely to see that type of relationship as normal and even positive.
  3. Listen well. Without interrupting. Without offering your opinion. If your child feels truly heard, they’re more likely to talk to you. Playground drama doesn’t seem like critical information, but it opens the door for your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Listening without judgment shows your child that you can handle their difficult situations. And when you demonstrate that you can hear elementary problems without reacting, they’re more likely to confide in you as a teen.

Kids choose to stay with bad friends for a few reasons.

First is the helper personality. This child feels like it’s their duty to monitor and control the behavior of their classmates. If this is your child, work with them to understand boundaries. They need to know that there are things outside of their control and that they are not responsible for other kids’ behavior. They need to let go.

Second is the victim mentality. This child doesn’t think they deserve to have good friends, or perhaps they think that this is how real friends act. If this is your child, boost their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (no, this won’t spoil them). Some of these kids may not be able to find friends in their peer group because of their reputation as someone who can be easily bullied. It may help to get them involved in extracurricular activities with a different group of kids.

Third is the imitation factor. Even if you’re modeling healthy relationships, the media has a major influence on what kids (and adults) consider normal. If your child’s fights with friends seem like something out of daytime television, make sure you know what they’re watching, playing, and reading. You don’t have to get rid of the TV or the tablet, but make sure to have a conversation about how the characters in your favorite show are just characters. The things they do are funny and exaggerated, but they’re not real. Follow up with a discussion of how you (or another real person) would handle the situation.

When is Medicating Your Child a Good Idea?

It’s hard to know when medication is the right step for you and your child. This guide will walk you through the main issues to consider.

Mental health is a delicate balance of the holy trinity- biological, psychological, and social factors. Medication acts primarily on the biological side.

If only it were that simple. Mental health medication is still highly stigmatized. I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories of the kid who was put on something that turned him into a blank zombie. Sure, he wasn’t bouncing off the walls anymore, but he also lost his personality.

On the other side, maybe you’ve seen the kid whose parents chose to give her only natural medicine for her ADHD. She’s completely unable to focus in class and she’s falling farther and farther behind grade level each year.

Or maybe you know a kid whose medication is helping him get through seventh grade. For the first time, he’s able to be present and participate in class. Too bad it couldn’t have happened earlier. His parents have been trying different meds and combinations since kindergarten. Between the nasty side effects and ineffective dosages, he’s been held back already, and he’s missed a lot of school.

Here are some guidelines I use when suggesting that medication might be the next step in mental health care:

  1. You’ve tried therapy. Therapy can be great. As a therapist, it’s my go-to solution. But therapy should show progress after a few months of consistent sessions with a person your kid has a good relationship with. This is why it’s important to set concrete goals with tangible benchmarks- so you’ll know if there’s change.
  2. Your child is not able to perform normal tasks of daily life without assistance at a level compared to other children of the same age. They should be able to follow a string of logical instructions- for example, asking your child to finish their bath, brush their teeth, change into pajamas, and then come tell you they’re done so you can read a story. If you need to remind your child of their tasks every few minutes, there’s a problem.
  3. They’re falling behind in school. This is the most important reason I recommend medication. Being held back affects a child’s self-esteem, their peer group, their reputation, and their sense of self-efficacy. It’s one of the most damaging and devastating experiences at that age. Many of my adult clients who have been held back listed it as a pivotal event, even as young as kindergarten.
  4. They are isolated from friends. Kids who have dramatic outbursts from ADHD, bipolar, psychosis, and other disorders tend to attract labels, and not very nice ones. This keeps them from normal social activities with peers and may make them a target for bullying- or turn them into a bully if loneliness shifts to anger.
  5. They recognize there’s a problem and want a solution. Lots of kids I’ve talked to over the years have told me they want to be able to sit down and concentrate on their work but they just can’t. This is the big difference between the class clown’s acting out and the disruptions from a mental disorder. Most children don’t want to interrupt, do poorly, or fail classes. When there’s a problem, they know.

Medication isn’t all-or-nothing. It’s possible to give your child a dosage that will take them through the school day and wear off in the evening. Many kids take medication holidays when school isn’t in session. Some kids need the additional help so they are able to try therapy and are able to stop the medication once things are under control.

But advice from the internet can only be vague. I don’t know your child or your situation. The best way to find out how medication could work for your family is to talk to someone in person.

The first person I always suggest is your pediatrician because they know your child and they know about normal child development. Doctors aren’t as well trained in mental health as a therapist or psychologist, but they can diagnose and prescribe psychiatric medication. You can ask during your child’s routine appointments, and this is usually covered by insurance.

The next person to talk to is your school’s psychologist, if your child qualifies for services through a 504 or IEP. These services are usually free through the district. Although the school psychologist won’t prescribe medication, they can assess your child, describe the diagnosis, and discuss the possibility of medicating.

The last person I recommend is a psychiatrist. This is because most communities have very few psychiatrists, so it can take months to get an initial appointment, if you can get one at all and aren’t placed on a waiting list. When you get there, the psychiatrist likely doesn’t know you or your child, so you have to explain the history of the problem. And if there are any issues with the dosage or side effects, it can be a while before you can get in for a follow up appointment.

You can talk to your regular therapist about medication too. Therapists in California are trained in psychopharmacology- knowledge of medications for mental health issues. But therapists can’t prescribe medication or even suggest medication. They’re available for you to talk about your thoughts or feelings about medicating your child, and they can help you find local referrals for doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

IEP 102: At the IEP

Confused by your rights as a parent when it comes to IEPs and assessments? This series will guide you through the process.

Disclaimer!

Every school does their IEP meetings differently, so this won’t exactly apply to every situation out there. You’ll have to modify this information to suit your unique needs. But if you’re already involved in the IEP process, you’re probably pretty good at dealing with modifications.

A quick note: I’m based in California. I’ve worked in schools in the Silicon Valley area and in the Monterey Bay and have experience with their systems. The information here will probably be most helpful to parents in the area, pretty helpful to parents in other parts of California, and only somewhat useful to parents in other states. Why? Because every state has their own ed code. Also, I am not a lawyer, and my experience with California IEPs is not meant to replace legal advice. My interpretations of the law should not be taken as absolute truth.

Okay, that’s the boilerplate out of the way. This text will appear at the top of every post in the IEP series, so on future posts, you can just scroll past because you’ve already read our disclaimer!

At the IEP

IEP meetings tend to be difficult for parents, teachers, and administration. It can be a long process to get the district to approve an IEP meeting in the first place, and that tension can carry over. For the teachers, having one student (or several) who need extra services that they are not receiving is similarly frustrating.

With emotions potentially running high and your child’s educational future at stake, here are seven tips to make sure the IEP meeting goes well.

  1. Keep copies of all documentation. The school will always keep copies for you in the child’s cum file, but they are not always accessible to you during off hours and over school breaks. Some schools keep them on site and others keep them at the district office. You should have your own copies of everything. Ideally, you should get all the information before the meeting so you can go over it yourself. Bring any outside documentation you have too- and a copy for the school.
  2. Avoid charged language. No matter how stressful things get in the room, don’t let anger or disappointment color your tone or words. Unfortunately, some parents get labeled by school staff as being overly emotional or difficult to work with. The teachers and staff go into those meetings already discounting those parents.
  3. Stick to facts. You have all the reports and assessments to back you up. Whatever you say will sound stronger if you reference the documentation. Printed emails, SST and 504 paperwork, and historical evidence from past years are also great ways to demonstrate need.
  4. Focus on the need. If your child needs a one-on-one aide, keep the conversation focused there. You can use the present level of educational performance report, the school psychologist’s assessment, communication with the teacher, or administrative reports to demonstrate that the accommodation will meet your child’s needs.
  5. Be willing to try. If there is disagreement on the best service for your child, suggest trying one service for a period of time and agree to meet again later to see how that service is working for your child. Make sure you’re getting updates regularly.
  6. Set tangible, measurable benchmarks to evaluate success. This is how you can demonstrate that the services are working (or not working). Use the assessments to guide the benchmarks. If scores are low, the accommodations should support a rise in scores. If disruptive outbursts are the problem, accommodations should help the number of outbursts per week decrease.
  7. Schedule a time to decompress after. Once you’re alone in your car, say what you really think of the teacher who “tried everything” but clearly didn’t try anything you suggested. Practice self care with a coffee and pastry before you go home. Go to a nice trail and have a hike. Whatever helps you process the meeting best.

Remember, you don’t have to be there alone. You have the right to bring a friend, translator, outside expert, or partner to the meeting. You also don’t have to accept the IEP right away. You can take it home to consider it first. You can also accept parts but not all of the IEP. You can also reject the IEP entirely. Make sure that your signature of attendance can’t be used as a signature of acceptance. You can write “proof of attendance only” across or immediately under your signature so it can’t be cropped out. If the meeting went particularly poorly, ask for another meeting. You can ask for a meeting as often as you’d like.

Choosing a Therapy Dollhouse

Dollhouses are excellent additions to a play therapy room. But a therapy dollhouse is different from one a parent would buy. Here are six things to consider when buying a dollhouse for use in child therapy.

Play therapists agree that a dollhouse is one of the essential items in assessment and treatment. Why? Because much of a child’s life takes place at home, and a dollhouse allows them to express their feelings and worries about home nonverbally. Multigenerational, multiethnic dolls allow the child to tell you about their home life, family, and routines in a nonthreatening way.

Not all dollhouses are suited to therapy. The best dollhouse is modular, meaning you can restructure the number and location of rooms to match the child’s home. But those are not very common and certainly not cheap. I’ve made a list below of things to look for and accessories to get.

Look for:

  1. Neutral colors. Many dollhouses come in bright pinks and purples, which can turn many kids away. The best dollhouses for therapy are either plain finished wood or a mix of colors that invite girls and boys to play.
  2. Empty rooms without decorations on the walls. Let the child use furniture to indicate the layout of the house that is most similar to their own at home.
  3. At least two stories. The upper and lower floors can represent separate levels of an apartment complex or multiple levels of a home.
  4. No external walls. Many dollhouses have a front door and an external wall on one side. This blocks the therapist’s view of what the child is doing. You should be able to see every room as the child is playing.
  5. Wood construction. Plastic gets brittle with time and use. Wood tends to last longer and hold up better to play. Wood also tends to be the material of choice for open frame and modular dollhouses, so it would probably be easier to find.
  6. Portable. While you may not be carrying it around, it should be easy enough for a child to turn around and for you to lift up onto a table. Heavier materials are sturdier, but you also need to be able to access it when you want to.

Accessories:

  1. People! Make sure to get a variety of skin colors, hair colors, ages, and genders. This can be a good tool to find out who lives with the child, who are close, who fight, and how the family is structured.
  2. Furniture. You’ll need everything people usually have in their homes. These allow you to code the rooms as kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, etc.
  3. Pets. Optional, but many children have or want pets. Sand tray pets work well too if you don’t want to buy separate dollhouse and sand tray animals. Many kids have nontraditional pets like farm animals or reptiles.

IEP 101: Getting to the IEP

Confused by your rights as a parent when it comes to IEPs and assessments? This series will guide you through the process.

Disclaimer!

Every school does their IEP meetings differently, so this won’t exactly apply to every situation out there. You’ll have to modify this information to suit your unique needs. But if you’re already involved in the IEP process, you’re probably pretty good at dealing with modifications.

A quick note: I am based in California. I’ve worked in schools in the Silicon Valley area and the Monterey Bay and have experience with their systems. The information here will probably be most helpful to parents in the area, pretty helpful to parents in other parts of California, and only somewhat useful to parents in other states. Why? Because every state has their own ed code. Also, I am not a lawyer and my experience with California IEPs is not meant to replace legal advice. My interpretations of the law should not be taken as absolute truth.

Okay, that’s the boilerplate out of the way. This text will appear at the top of every post in the IEP series, so on future posts, you can just scroll past because you’ve already read our disclaimer!

Getting to the IEP

There are a few different ways your child might be referred to an IEP meeting. The schools are supposed to be the ones who find that a child needs additional accommodations in order to get an education. But let’s be real. The district has a few thousand students, each school administration has a few hundred, and each teacher has about thirty. It’s possible your child might fall through the cracks or be misdiagnosed as “trouble” or “aggressive” or “just shy.” Some disabilities are obvious, but many are not apparent to someone who doesn’t know your child.

Notice my language. I said disability on purpose. During an IEP it’s important to stress your child’s deficiencies and needs. This seems backwards because most of us approach parenting from a strengths-based orientation that focuses on the child’s abilities. The IEP is a time where you need to focus on the areas where your child needs support. You need to demonstrate that they are falling behind, not meeting benchmarks, or unable to keep up.

So how do you request an IEP? Each “special education local plan area” creates its own policy. Your school should be able to get you a copy of your policy, but many schools will refer you to the district office. Most schools are fairly cooperative, but some will try to keep you from the information. If your school is difficult at this stage, that’s a sign you might need a lawyer at some point during the process.

For bilingual children, it is important to note that the assessment should be conducted in their “native language,” so be specific and accurate on school forms where it asks about the student’s other languages spoken at home and their level of fluency. The assessor should use “the language and form most likely to yield accurate information on what the pupil knows and can do.”

After your child is referred for assessment, the school has 15 days to give you the proposed assessment plan. The plan should be in your preferred language using terminology you can understand. It will explain all the assessments that will be used. If you do not consent to the assessment, the school has the right to assess anyway, though they are not able to implement an IEP without your consent.

You should be called into a meeting within 60 days of signing the consent for the assessment (sometimes called the evaluation). The school will assess the student and use those findings to inform the IEP meeting goals. Some districts will accept information from an outside assessment, but many will not.

The ed code states that the student will only be moved to special education when they are unable to work in general education. If you know your child needs special education, this process can be slow and frustrating while your child falls farther and farther behind with insufficient accommodations in the general classroom. If you think your child needs additional help but could stay in the general education system, it can seem like the school is funneling students straight into special education without fully exploring the general education classroom options.

Look out for IEP 102: At the IEP here!