Back to School Night—What You Should Ask in Addition to Academics

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Happy Labor Day! We are enjoying a great weekend as my parents are here visiting from Los Angeles, and my sister Nancy and her boyfriend Eddie are here from Oakland as well. We have enjoyed many great meals, playing Monopoly, and several family walks here at Lake Nona. Probably like most of other parents, we are glad that Claire has been in school now for about 2 weeks and we are beginning to feel like we're back into our routines. For us, three weekday afternoons she goes from school to an activity, and there are two weekdays during which she has a little more time to enjoy MindCraft on my iPad, or watch a little TV, and have more time to get homework done before dinner. After dinner, it never feels like there is enough time, as just when we are enjoying a few minutes of togetherness, I find myself tired, slightly cranky and repeating, "it's bedtime!"

I asked Nancy tonight what I should write about, and she quickly suggested helping parents know what to ask at "Back to School Night". For most students, this will occur within the next few weeks. As Claire is only in 2nd grade, this will only be my second "Back to School Night." While I look forward to meeting her teachers, tour the classroom, and even meet some of the other parents, one always hopes that the teacher's impression of one's child is a good one to start the school year. In addition to the opportunity to find out what environment your child is in daily, this can also be a chance for parents to ask about both nutrition and health related topics and choices for your child. Let's start with food and nutrition related questions. If you don't already know, this is a great time to ask about the classroom party policy. That is, for birthdays and other occasions, is the norm of the school/classroom for parents to bring in cupcakes, sodas, cookies, juice pouches, and/or other likely processed and high in sugar snacks? Or has your child's school taken a proactive stance and encouraged items which are more natural, like fresh fruit, crackers, pretzels, popcorn, veggies, and other more healthy options. Basically, you'll want to know if there are "food standards" for treats brought by parents or volunteers. If you are not in a rotation to bring snacks, or if the school provides snacks, you may want to ask what they provide daily, and if you may request to have your child be given water instead of juice pouches or anything that may contain too much sugar.

If you are not already informed about the school lunch menu and processes, this may be a good time to ask about that as well. Most schools offer, or mandate milk or chocolate milk with lunch. Find out if they serve fresh fruit or canned fruits, which can be a hidden source of sugar due to the heavy syrup. Find out if their menu is posted online so that you and your child may be able to look at the menu ahead of time and make decisions regarding which days to consider bringing lunch. Ask if the cafeteria offers a salad bar, as well as daily choices so that you and your child may discuss his/her choices on a daily basis. Especially relevant for older kids, find out if the school has vending machines which sell soda as well as other highly processed and sugary snacks. In addition, you should ask about the education curriculum for nutrition and self-care. In what grade, or does your child's current grade teacher plan to teach about nutrition and health? To what extent? Will your child learn to read the food label? If the answers are no to any of these questions, you have the opportunity to plan to do that on your own with your child. As a part of learning about the body and its various systems, does the school curriculum teach about current pediatric health related epidemics like obesity, and why it's important to become aware of one's own health and choices one makes regarding diet and exercise? Another important topic is to find out what sports and activities children do during physical education as well as team sports or activities offered after school. What is pretty amazing is that here in Central Florida, the YMCA has a strong presence, and in fact, facilities are physically connected to several public schools here so that during after school "Y" care, children can get much exercise.

I have been packing Claire's lunch daily, and I will admit it's one more "thing" to think about every evening. She actually taught me to think outside the box by asking me to buy her a Thermos so that I can pack her "hot" lunches. She had watched other students bring soup and pasta in their thermos containers, so now I do bring her some chicken noodle soup or leftover from dinner meals. The ironic thing is, I grew up in Taiwan where every child's mother packed him/her lunch in a metal "lunchbox", usually consisting of rice and last night's dinner. I have distinct memories of dropping the metal rectangular box off in a large crate every morning, so that everyone's lunch is steamed to be reheated and every child eats a hot lunch daily. Back then, there were no other options like cold sandwiches or other items like pizza. Now of course, it's common that almost every street corner in Taipei has Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, and many other western convenience food options.

If you have not asked already, you may want to find out what level of "illness" does the school nurse handle at your child's school. What is their illness policy? Is fever reason enough to stay home? If child has a cold and low grade fever which responds to a dose of Tylenol or ibuprofen, can he/she still go to school? When and what signs/symptoms should a student stay home from school? When a child is ill but able to still go to school, can he/she be excused from PE and/or any strenuous exercise like running? What is the minimum and maximum temperature for which students would not be allowed outside to prevent frost bite or heat stroke? Another important question—are students taught to always wash hands before lunch? What about after activities when they share school supplies or may contact one another?As soon as school started, Claire got a bad cold and even had a "croupy" or barky cough for over 4 - 5 days. She had to remind me that I can't just stick a few cough drops in her pocket, but that all medications, even over the counter items, must be given to the school nurse who can then distribute to the child. I am always embarrassed when I must be reminded by my 7 year old how to follow school rules/policies.

We have been blessed and have found teachers to be very open to communication and answering questions we may have regarding school work, processes, and any other concerns expressed by Claire. There is nothing like when you're tucking your child into bed at night, and she shares some perceived negative experience from school that day. It's hard to not react, but to instead ask questions to really understand the issues, and then challenge her to come up with potential solutions. I am one to be quick to "fix" perceived issues, and it's something I have been working on in order to provide Claire with opportunities to become more self directed and independent. Most importantly, just as I continue to make mistakes daily at work and at home, I have to remind myself to allow her opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them as well.

Enjoy your back to school night. Dave does get a bit embarrassed as I tend to ask many questions. As the teachers get to spend much more time with my daughter than I do, I feel it's important that I know what to expect and how I can help at home, so that she can enjoy school and perform her best each and every day.


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