Four Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) Every Parent Should Know

We answer four common questions about parenting, from homeschooling and time-outs to sensory disorder and cyber-bullying

1. Should I choose a public or a private school? And what about homeschooling?There are many factors to consider when deciding how to educate your child. Though homeschooling is quite popular in our region, most people are trying to decide between public and private school, a decision complicated by the diverse educational philosophies represented here in the Hudson Valley. We have everything from Catholic schools to traditional college prep to a military academy to several Waldorf schools that don’t allow computers — and even discourage their use at home.

Education expert Shannon Devereaux Sanford, author of the Parent’s Guide to Hudson Valley Schools, says the best place to start is with cost — pure and simple. Private school is expensive, and while scholarships and financial aid are often available, it is an expense many families just cannot afford. Next, examine your motivations. Is private school what is really best for your child, or something that you, the parent, want? If you find it’s the former, begin looking for a school whose philosophy is complementary to your lifestyle and beliefs.

Sanford warns that it’s not a good idea to settle for a school that doesn’t meet all your criteria. “It has to be a near-perfect fit. Don’t say, ‘Well, this one thing is really great and I can deal with all the other things that aren’t so great.’ You won’t be able to.” In general, there are many benefits to a private education. Largely unfettered by things like standardized testing, private school curriculums tend to be more diverse and challenging; it’s easier to find a place where your child can pursue his unique interests and talents. And you are able to hand-pick a community of like-minded parents and peers for your children.

Public school has its benefits as well, varying within each district, which will determine everything from class size to the accessibility of arts education and athletic extracurriculars. “If you have public schools with small class sizes, save your money [and skip private school],” Sanford urges, explaining that with small classes, kids will get more individualized attention which is key whether they struggle academically or excel. The other time public school should be a first choice is if your child has special needs — as public schools tend to be better funded and can offer more robust services.

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Having a high-achieving child who was marginalized in public school led Brenda Storz to homeschooling — the oft-forgotten third option. After an exceptional preschool and kindergarten experience in a progressive “parents classroom,” Storz was disheartened when the public school refused to accommodate her first grader’s advanced reading level. That is when she discovered homeschooling. Two years later, Storz moved to the Warwick area and after a year of research and networking, she founded Hudson Valley Homeschoolers, a uniquely diverse and inclusive community which challenges the popular misconception that homeschoolers are isolated or behind the times.

“When you have a true community, all the things that people see as pitfalls of homeschooling fall away,” says Storz. “If we can do it together we can help keep the adventure joyful. It helps nurture a lifelong love of learning for kids and parents.” While there are a dearth of studies about how homeschooled kids fare in college, a recent study in the Journal of College Admission found that homeschooled students had higher ACT scores and grade-point averages once they got to college.

There are approximately 80 families in Hudson Valley Homeschoolers, representing all educational philosophies and faiths. The group supports families with children in the full K-12 range, and cohesively plans out a full calendar of regularly scheduled events for the school year including weekly elective classes followed by afternoons socializing at a park, field trips twice a month, monthly family events, teen-oriented events, community service projects, and seasonal family retreats.

The most obvious pro of homeschooling is that no child is left with a one-size-fits-all education. “When we provide a curriculum that meets the individual needs, interests, talents, and learning disposition of the child, it encourages deep and meaningful learning,” says Storz, who now homeschools all three of her children, ages 12, eight, and four.

Storz does admit that homeschooling is not the perfect choice for everyone. It often requires one stay-at-home parent, and is incredibly time consuming, especially when tailoring curriculums for children of different ages and/or learning dispositions. It can also be more expensive than private school, though there are families who make it work with very limited resources. “Homeschooling is not the easy choice,” she says. “But it’s an amazing journey.”

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sad girl with laptop
2. How can I help my child combat cyber-bullying?

In September 2011, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old boy from the Buffalo area, committed suicide after being bullied both at school and online. Although bullying has always been a problem in schools, cyber-bullying is a relatively new phenomenon, one that has taken on a life of its own as more kids between the ages of 12 and 15 use cell phones and online social networks like Facebook. In response to this epidemic, New York State Senator Jeff Klein introduced legislation shortly after Rodemeyer’s death that would expand the scope of second-degree manslaughter to include “bullycide,” online bullying that leads to death. It would also expand the crime of third-degree stalking to include cyber-bullying, defined as the use of digital and mobile technology by a minor to cause emotional distress to another minor. “New York State has had trouble prosecuting cyber-bullying under the current laws,” explains Westchester psychologist and cyber-bullying expert Dr. Richard DioGuardi. “The laws aren’t keeping pace with technology. Bullying is no longer confined to the schoolyard — it’s mobile.”

A 2011 Consumer Reports survey revealed that one million children were harassed, threatened, or the subject of salacious rumors on Facebook in the previous year. Dr. DioGuardi estimates that more than a quarter of his adolescent patients have been the victims of cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying can include cruel things said directly to the victim via text message, email, or Instant Message (IM); or relational abuse, in which a child is excluded by online friends or is the subject of defamatory rumors and remarks on public forums. “Kids don’t get a reprieve,” says Dr. DioGuardi. “You used to be able to go home and get a break from bullying, but now kids can’t because it’s on their computers, on their cell phones. It’s very sad.”

Schools are one part of what Dr. DioGuardi calls a “three-tiered approach” to combating cyber-bullying, the other two being parents and the children themselves. Today, educators are trained to detect early warning signs of bullying. In July, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) will go into effect. This state legislation protects against all forms of harassment, prohibiting activities and behavior that create a hostile environment at school or school-sponsored events. Here in the Valley, several school districts have been sued for failure to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to incidences of cyber-bullying. In 2009, a Pine Plains family was awarded $1.25 million in damages after the school district failed to address the repeated physical assaults, death threats, and online harassment endured by their son.

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It is not realistic to expect that an adolescent will avoid using a computer altogether, so parents must teach safe technology use and remain vigilant about their child’s online activities. Kids should be taught to block or ignore unwelcome communication; clean up IM buddy lists to reduce the number of people who have access to them; and resist engaging bullies when baited. If a child has already been cyber-bullied, it is important that messages not be deleted, as they can be used as evidence. If the harassment escalates, enlist the help of the school psychologist or police liaison. If this is ineffective, Dr. DioGuardi recommends contacting the police directly.

Red flags that might indicate a child is being bullied include sudden trouble sleeping or nightmares; falling behind in schoolwork; appearing angry, frustrated, or upset after looking at their cell phone; abrupt avoidance of computers; or sudden social withdrawal from friends. Because bullying of any kind can be so damaging to a kid’s self-esteem, it can be helpful to get them into therapy with a professional who specializes in bullying. In addition, it’s important for parents to be aware of signs that their child might be a cyber-bully: Investigate further if he or she quickly switches screens or closes program when you walk by, avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer; and uses multiple online accounts or an account that is not their own.

“Cyber-bullying happens during such a formative time,” says Dr. DioGuardi. “Kids will internalize bad ideas about how friendships and relationships work that can stay with them for quite awhile. It’s not a quick process, but I’ve seen kids make comebacks.”

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sensory processing disorder
3. So many of my friends’ kids have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. What should I be on the lookout for?

Lisa Bennett’s* concern about her son Aaron’s* sensitivity to noise hit a tipping point during one of their frequent road trips to Vermont. Each attempt to use the bathroom resulted in a complete meltdown. “It was just a bathroom. We didn’t know how to handle it when he was freaking out,” she recalls. The roar of automatic hand dryers and flushing toilets was too much for Aaron, as was any loud noise. Aaron would freeze if he heard a fire truck go by, and refused to play on his friend’s motorized Big Wheels. He was prone to tantrums, and had issues modulating his volume at school. “For a long time before he was two, I worried, ‘Am I imagining this? Is this just a phase?’ I thought, ‘Maybe he’s just a cautious kid.’ ” Bennett finally shared her concerns with her friend Pepper Franchina-Gallagher, a Cold Spring-based occupational therapist, who encouraged her to get Aaron evaluated through his school. At the age of three, Aaron was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and prescribed intensive physical and occupational therapy.

Sensory Processing Disorder — formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction — is the inability of the nervous system to process sensory information and respond functionally. As a spectrum disorder, it can involve any or all of the seven senses — sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, vestibular (movement), or proprioceptive, which tells us where our body is in space. Doctors use three subcategories to diagnose children: In the first, Sensory Modulation Disorder, children have difficulty regulating their response to stimuli. Sensory Discrimination Disorder occurs when the child has trouble recognizing and discerning input (i.e., determining the amount of force needed to throw a ball). Lastly, kids with Sensory Based Motor Disorder have difficulty with their postural and ocular control, causing them to appear clumsy. These children may have a lazy eye, or struggle to sit up straight or hold a pencil.

Sensory Processing Disorder is the inability of the nervous system to process sensory information and respond functionally

According to Franchina-Gallagher, signs of SPD can begin showing up as early as six to eight months. Red flags can include persistent crankiness in a baby; extreme pickiness with food or fabrics; compulsive touching; compulsive licking or tasting things (past the age of two); or fear of moving. “If you suspect something, you should see your pediatrician first, then touch base with an occupational therapist who has sensory integration experience,” she says. Because the neurological system develops so fast in the first few years of life, Franchina-Gallagher insists that even small red flags be addressed immediately. “The younger we get them in therapy, the better.”

This was certainly the case for Bennett and her son. Right after his diagnosis, Aaron began Integrated Listening System (ILS) therapy four times a week with Franchina-Gallagher. The combination of an auditory therapy like ILS and occupational treatment is ideal for SPD, as it helps kids integrate what they hear, see, and feel. “Within a couple of weeks we saw great improvement,” Bennett says of ILS. Today, a year since beginning therapy, Aaron will ride a four-wheeler with his uncle or climb on the jungle gym, things he’d never do before. And though he still gets scared, he’ll verbalize his fear and move beyond it. This fall Aaron will start kindergarten, and while Bennett expects challenges, she’s glad he will be more prepared to interact socially in school. “He just seems more comfortable in his own skin.”

* Names changed to protect privacy

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child in time-out in chair
4. Do time-outs work?

Somewhere in the age of attachment parenting and gentle discipline, time-outs — a perennial discipline favorite — have gotten a bad rap, and undeservingly so, according to Dr. Eric Neblung, a Nyack-based psychologist and president of the New York State Psychological Association. Time-outs are an excellent way to modify behavior, he says, as long as they’re executed in a way that is both appropriate for the child and sustainable for the parent.

Truly effective time-outs — those that teach children cause and effect and encourage positive choices — are a far cry from little Johnny sitting in the corner with a dunce cap on his head. Time-outs that are doled out in anger and are merely punitive will be ineffective and frustrating both for you and your child. The most effective time-outs are those that happen directly following the negative behavior for any child two years of age and up, are brief (parenting guru Dr. Sears recommends no more than one minute per year of age), and include a clear and firm explanation at the onset, so that the child can get back to playing once they’ve served their time. But the biggest reason they fail is a lack of consistency, according to Dr. Neblung. No child, he says, wants to disengage from playing to sit quietly, so if that consequence is guaranteed, it’s far more likely to dissuade negative behaviors.

All that said, Dr. Neblung emphasizes that a proactive, positive approach to discipline is best. “Parents tend to focus on punishing and taking things away, but it’s healthier and more effective to use positive reinforcement.” This means encouraging good choices by letting your child know when you see them doing something right (“I like how you’re playing so nicely with your brother”), rather than simply punishing bad choices (“If you don’t share you’ll get a time-out”). Try offering incentives, rather than making threats. “Parents are quick to call out bad behavior — the squeaky wheel gets the oil — but the regular praise of good behavior helps foster pro-social behavior,” he says.

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