Summer’s on the wane. Those sweet, gauzy days are fast receding, becoming specks of memory in our rear-view mirrors. It’s game-on for the new school year, and all hands are on deck to ready our children for the road ahead. There’s a lot to think about: How do we help our student with learning difficulties? How do we keep our football player safe on the field? How do we lift (all) their eyes from their smartphone screens? We parents thought we’d left school behind long ago. No such luck!

chalk-arttoo much tech?
When is enough, enough? “When there isn’t balance,” says Sam Page, head of Rohan Woods School. “… And when electronic use isn’t monitored by adults.” As is the case with almost everything, parents need to model the behavior they want to see in their children. “If we have our own heads in our cell phones, we can’t expect our kids to be any different,” she says.

At Rohan Woods, Page says technology is used “strategically and purposefully,” not independent of instruction, but in conjunction with it. However, what goes on at home is outside a school’s purview. In a world where so much communication happens via text and emotions are conveyed by emoji, real face-to-face interaction also is something parents need to model. “We have to facilitate conversations with our young people,” Page says.

Computers also are partly to blame for more sedentary lifestyles. Elementary students are less of a concern because they spend time outside each day, but Page says the older children get, the less activity there can be. “It’s so easy for busy parents to lose track of screen-time,” she says. Before we know it, hours have gone by and our teen hasn’t moved.

MICDS is an enthusiastic proponent of technology as a learning tool, and has had a one-to-one laptop program since 2008. (There are currently 1,650 such devices on the MICDS campus for both students and teachers.) Every child is subject to an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which sets out expectations, and there are clear rules for engaging in social media. Tom Wyman, director of technology for the past seven years, says the school has become more savvy about leveraging the power of technology outside the classroom. Students take their laptops home each night, he explains, and are part of an online learning management system that facilitates teacher/student interaction and collaborative work with peers. Like Page, however, he is quick to stress that a computer is no substitute for parental involvement, and encourages families to remain fully engaged.

While Wyman says society is being “morphed” by technology and advances are taking place at lightning speed, he also thinks that a school can remain resilient to too much change. In his seven years at MICDS, he says he has seen no disintegration of relations among students and no negative impact on the community as a whole. “It’s our job to prepare our young people for life,” Wyman says. “And technology is a giant piece of that. There’s no denying it, and no stopping it.”

learning difficulties
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. The study found that one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), described as a neurodevelopmental problem characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. Liz Kinsella, program director at Thrive Autism Solutions, says there may be a genetic component, but better understanding of the condition also may be behind increased figures. Early diagnosis is important because it helps families receive support, she says, adding that public schools are better equipped these days to help children with ASD. They are required—under the 1996 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—to provide free and appropriate education to all students. “Many families wish they could send their child to a private or parochial school,” says Kinsella. “But often, there simply aren’t the accommodations in place.”

Public schools, however, offer Individual Education Plans (IEPs). These are legal documents that outline programs and goals specific to each child, and they include any special requirements a student might have (duplicate books to keep at home, frequent breaks during the day, extra test time, etc.). In addition, an organization like Thrive might send a behavior technician into the classroom to be with the child until they can cope alone. “We’ll go wherever we are welcome,” Kinsella says.

Regardless of the type of institution, there are ways for parents to help children manage school. One of the biggest challenges for a person with ASD is anxiety, says Cyndy Vincent, speech and language pathologist with both Special Solutions and Lindbergh High School. Whatever a family can do to reduce it will help a child better navigate their day, and life generally, she says. Routines play a large part in this. “Predictability is key and gives the child a sense of control. The more structure they have, the happier they are,” she says. Adhering to an evening schedule (downtime, homework, dinner, bed) can make all the difference; preparing for the following morning the night before (organizing papers, packing a backpack) can make for a peaceful start to the day. “It takes the stress off everyone in the household and gradually leads to independence.”

Both Vincent and Kinsella recommend that parents communicate closely with teachers about their child’s needs. Before the year begins, take them to meet teachers and request photographs of their faces to be matched to the student’s schedule. Other small things can have a big impact: Keep all papers in a single binder, recommends Vincent, and paste their timetable on the front. Hang reminders on the front door (backpack, coat, lunchbox) or on the bathroom mirror (shower, teeth, medicine). School lunch can be particularly difficult for a child with autism. Arrange for him/her to be paired with a buddy, and, early on, bring a sandwich from home, which can make navigating the cafeteria far less daunting. While Vincent acknowledges electronics can help with a student’s daily planning, she says they ought not be used within two hours of bedtime because of their tendency to interfere with sleep. “Rest is essential for all of us, but especially for a person with autism,” she says.

concussiontackling concussion
With football and soccer season upon us, our thoughts swivel back to concussion. Once again, we parents—knuckles gnawed—return to our spots on the sidelines, dreading the crack of helmet on helmet, the thump of shoulders.

We hear a lot about concussion these days, but Dr. Brian Mahaffey, medical director of Mercy Sports Medicine and team physician for the St. Louis Cardinals, says this may be due to increased awareness rather than increased occurrence. “We may be seeing more patients because we’re doing a much better job of recognizing concussion when it happens,” he says.

Mahaffey explains concussion like this: an injury caused by the rotation of the head, not a blow to the head. “A concussion isn’t anatomical, but occurs at cell-level. It is caused by a jolt through the energy pattern of the brain,” he says. This means that helmets can do only so much, protecting the skull from fracture, but not the brain from the secondary blow that occurs within it. The only way truly to prevent such an injury, he says, would be to bolt the helmet to the shoulder pads to keep the head in one place. Symptoms include headache, problems with balance, light sensitivity, inability to concentrate and moodiness. “There might be a change in personality,” explains Dr. Sean Goretzke, pediatric neurologist with SLUCare Physician Group. “They might seem like a different kid.”

According to Mahaffey and Goretzke, concussions occur most frequently in football and soccer, but also are common in ice hockey and lacrosse. By teaching new tackling techniques (using shoulders rather than head) and calling fouls when necessary, schools are addressing the problem. In addition, concussion screening tests carried out pre-season help to establish a baseline by which an athlete is gauged post-injury. And a recent Missouri state law mandates that any high school sanctioned by the Missouri State High School Athletic Association must prevent a player from returning to the field until he has been assessed thoroughly by a concussion expert.

One of the difficulties, the doctors say, is that different brains respond differently. Where it may take a hefty knock for one person to suffer concussion, another may experience problems after only a minor encounter. It is important to know how repeated concussions might be affecting an athlete and when they should cease playing, but traditional MRIs don’t provide this information, Goretzke says. (He adds that other, more advanced imaging is in the works). Both doctors concur that concussion that leads to chronic problems happens only in 5 to 10 percent of cases. “With the right care, 95 percent of people recover very quickly,” says Mahaffey.

“The worst thing a kid can do is tough it out and play through,” Goretzke stresses. Rest is vital and return to work and play must be gradual, over a period of one to two weeks. “Kids who struggle to get back too quickly tend to have more problems down the road.”