Dear San Jose Unified School District Leadership, 08/20/2020
I am writing this letter to share with you the profound concerns I have for the children in our community. Before getting into the reasons for my concerns I want to commend you for pivoting quickly during this unprecedented time – a time that we could have never predicted or planned for. Keeping children home and safe is, although not ideal, essential right now. I recognize making a plan for a district of this size come with more challenges than meets the eye. I know you are having to make a one size fits all plan for an entire community that certainly does not all have the same needs. No matter the plan, you will not be able to make a perfect solution for everyone. With that being said, I feel that the current plan is less than ideal and has the potential to negatively impact many students far longer than this pandemic will last.
As an occupational therapist I have extensive training in child development and I am deeply worried about the long term psychosocial affects the current learning/school structure will have on this generation of youth (on top of the impacts living through a global pandemic will have on them). I implore San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) to reevaluate how the current structure is setting our children up for far more difficulties than the potential benefits they may be receiving from it. Research is clear that technology is harmful to children’s developing brains. Additionally, based on trauma research, we now know that parental stress and anxiety are strong correlates for poor outcomes for children.
Prior to this pandemic, research was clear that children needed more opportunities for unstructured play, movement and exploration. The evidence supporting increasing recess is strong. The American Academy of Pediatrics underscores the benefits of unstructured play on healthy brain development including promoting intelligence, creativity, imagination and resilience. In studies comparing the academic and behavioral outcomes of children who either receive opportunities to engage in unstructured play and those who don’t, it is clear that play is critical to optimal development. Countless studies have shown that students all across our country have less recess time that previous generations and we have the chance to change that. During the pandemic, prior to school resuming, when driving down residential streets it became evident that play was returning to our world. Although maybe not recommended or safe due to the pandemic, neighborhood children were playing together again!
In addition to promoting the benefits of movement and unstructured play, the AAP also released a statement in 2016 outlining the negative impacts of technology. In their statement they indicate that risks associated with excessive media use “include negative health effects on sleep, attention, and learning; a higher incidence of obesity and depression; exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts; and compromised privacy and confidentiality.” A research article in The Journal of the American Medical Association answered the question: Is frequent use of modern digital media platforms, such as social media, associated with occurrence of ADHD symptoms during adolescence? Their findings? “In this longitudinal cohort survey study of adolescents aged 15 and 16 years at baseline and without symptoms of ADHD, there was a significant association between higher frequency of modern digital media use and subsequent symptoms of ADHD over a 24-month follow-up.” Child development experts also have taught us that the younger a child is the more moldable their brains are – called neuroplasticity. If we see brain changes happening for adolescence with excessive screen use it is undeniable that the impacts on 5, 6 even 10-year olds will be even more profound and detrimental.
The final point I want to touch on parental stress and its impact on children’s long-term development. We as a society are experiencing increased stressed related to the pandemic as well as the polarizing state of our nation right now. Parents are undoubtedly feeling the impacts of the pandemic more than anyone. Managing jobs, childcare, lack of jobs, health and safety of their family, increased behaviors from their children, lack of respite just to name a few. According to Mental Health America (MHA), more than a quarter million people took a mental health screening in July which is the highest number in the six years that the tool has been available. “In July, more than 72,000 of our screeners indicated moderate to severe symptoms of depression, more than 39,000 had moderate to severe systems of anxiety, and more than 19,000 had symptoms of psychosis” according to MHA President, Paul Gionfriddo. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which include having a family member with mental health concerns, can have negative, lasting effects on the health, wellbeing, and lifelong opportunities including disruption of healthy brain development, social development, immune systems, and can lead to substance misuse and other unhealthy coping behaviors (CDC). The challenges inherently present during this pandemic cannot be taken away. They exist and we must do everything we can as a society to minimize the impacts this will have on our next generation. What is being asked of parents right now is adding additional and unnecessary stress. Parents are not meant to be their child’s teacher. They are not meant to be IT support. They are not meant to be an all-day cafeteria worker or recess monitor. Many are quitting their jobs because they feel there is no other way. In fact, one day after school started, one of my own employees let me know she needed to stop working because it was impossible to juggle it all. While we don’t have the choice to send children back to in person school – nor do I think we should – we do have the power to make this a little less difficult on our parents.
I urge you to do the following in order to minimize the potential long-term detrimental impacts on our communities next generation:
In summary, I commend the SJUSD leadership for pivoting quickly and trying to solve the many issues that exists with resuming education. Unfortunately, the current school structure is developmentally inappropriate and has requirements that research has shown to have negative impacts on children’s long-term health, overall wellbeing and lifelong outcomes. Parents are stressed more than ever before which is not entirely avoidable but there are opportunities to make things a little less difficult for them. You have the power to change a lot of lives… I hope you will make the choice to change them for the better.
Brittney Weinerth MS, OTR/L
Pediatric Occupational Therapist
Owner of Almaden Valley Children's Therapy Center
by Brittney Weinerth MS, OTR/L
Writing this post is scary for me. Bringing a "controversial" topic to the table of a small business is risky but I strongly believe that sharing our values will enable us to continue to serve those we are meant to serve.
In the past few days my heart has felt extremely heavy, helpless, and scared. But I have also been witness of people all around me (myself included) learning more about acceptance, opening their eyes to their often hidden internal biases, and being open and ready for change. Within our training as occupational therapists we spend a significant amount of time discussing various topics related to race, cultural sensitivity, understanding and recognizing our own biases, attitudes and beliefs. Additionally as a lecturer at San Jose State University I taught the course on professional development and one of the four pillars of the class was on embracing diversity (Self-reflection and awareness of one’s own identity, values, attitudes, and prejudices. Skills in perceiving, understanding, respecting, and responding to others’ diverse experiences, values, attitudes, and prejudices).
Despite having had the opportunity to spend a lot of time reflecting on and thinking about cultural competency and acceptance, I have learned so much about how far I have to come. This week I have learned big and small things such as:
- Many people are afraid to talk about race because they haven't taken the time to understand the culture, history, and preferences of people of color.
-It is usually preferred to call an individual "Black" than African American.
-The word Black should be capitalized.
*I am still learning and am open to being further educated. Thank you for those who have responded with additions or corrections to the above.
Although I have learned that I have a sense of fear around talking about the topic of race and racism, what I have learned the most is that it takes getting vulnerable right now and risking doing it wrong in order to learn, grow, and support.
In this post I want to share with you some toys I have purchased for our office to continue to promote diversity. I have also included some toys that I thought you all may enjoy to have at home.
1. 6 Rainbow People Wooden Peg Dolls
2. Colorations Multi Cultural Dough
3. I Am Enough
4. Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History
5. A Child's Introduction to African American History
6. Constructive Playthings Expression Babies Plush Dolls
7. Emotions Flash Cards Feelings
8. Crayola Multicultural Marker Classpack
by Thao Pham BS, COTA/L and Brittney Weinerth MS, OTR/L
Note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or occupational therapist.
Recently the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance on measures that schools will need to take in order to reopen which included encouraging students to wear masks during times that they would be unable to social distance.
The CDC guidelines state that schools and families should:
"Teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings. Face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school. Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently. Information should be provided to staff, students, and students’ families on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings."
Many parents expressed concern about the need for children to wear masks next school year and understandably were worried about their child's ability to tolerate wearing a mask. Wearing a face covering is difficult for most children, however children with sensory sensitivities will undoubtedly experience distress and difficulties complying with wearing a face covering. In this blog we are offering strategies to assist you in supporting your child to tolerate wearing a mask easier and have also included a free tool at the end of the post that can be used to incorporate the ideas presented in this blog.
Individuals with tactile sensory aversions can have a hard time tolerating wearing things (ie. sunglasses, hats, helmets, etc.) on their heads. The sense of touch is located throughout the body, in your largest organ, the skin. The sense of touch originates in the bottom layer of your skin called the dermis. The dermis is filled with nerve endings that give your brain important information about heat, cold, pain, and pressure or touch receptors. The face is an especially sensitive and delicate area because there are more touch receptors. It makes sense why wearing a facemask for long periods of time can be extremely difficult for many individuals. The lack of air, hot temperature, smells, the pinching of the straps, or texture of the mask can all play a role in making it hard for people with sensory difficulties to withstand. So what can you do?
Occupational therapists specialize in supporting children who experience life disruptions due to sensory processing difficulties. OT's are experienced in determining what underlies a child's difficulties as well as establishing a strong therapeutic relationship built on trust and understanding which often is what allows a child to engage in tasks that would normally be challenging for them. If your child currently has an occupational therapist, reach out to them to find out strategies that they feel would be best to support your child in their ability to tolerate a face cover. If not and you feel like your child struggles with sensory sensitivities in general, finding an OT who specializes in sensory processing is advised.
1. Approach From a Place of Understanding
What we are asking children to do - children with and without sensitivities - is hard. If your child senses that you know their struggle, can empathize with their struggle and that you support them regardless of if they can "succeed" with tolerating a mask will allow them to be in a better place to try hard things. Oftentimes children are unwilling to try hard things that they might not be successful at for fear of frustrating or disappointing others (or themselves).
Phrases to try might include: "I know wearing a mask feels uncomfortable for you. It sometimes feels that way for me too." "I'm here to help you with this."
2. Incorporate Your Child
Have your child be a part of the process. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often need to be able to control or manage their environment in order to feel safe to try hard things. Work with your child to think about what kind of mask would be suitable for them. In particular, I recommend paying attention to their preferences, here are some different types of masks to consider:
In addition to having your child help you determine the type of mask you could have them help create a plan for increasing their tolerance such as when, where, how long. The method for incorporating a child will obviously differ based on their age but when a child feels like they have some control they will be more able to remain calm.
Phrases to try might include: "When do they think they will be most successful practicing the mask - morning, evening, when they're alone, etc.?" "Where would they like to practice?" "How long do they think they can tolerate it today?" "I really like my mask to be soft, which kind of mask do you think you would like [showing pictures]?"
3. Build Tolerance Slowly
Consistency, patience, and repetition are all important components when establishing any routine. Likewise, increasing tolerance to sensory aversions takes time. Explore what your child can currently tolerate. It may be holding the mask in their hand. Would they be willing to touch the mask to their cheek? Perhaps they don't even want to look at the mask. If that’s the case, you might start by having them sit at a table with the mask close by. Remember, you want to set them up for success so start wherever they're comfortable.
Using a timer can be a great way to help your child see improvements or work towards their goal. Set the timer for a small amount initially that you know they can be successful at – even if it’s for just 5 seconds. Then reward their success and slowly increase their time next time. When first introducing I find the most success when I stop at their first success rather than continuing to push them to their limits. It shows them that I respect how hard this is and help them trust me as we get further down the process when I do need to push them harder.
We strongly recommend short and targeted practice sessions. Let’s say 5-15 minutes depending on their tolerance. These sessions need to become part of their daily schedule, add it to their daily routine.
At first, it may help to hold these practice sessions at the same general time and location during the day. You know when your child is at their best. Perhaps right after lunch, dinner, or before bed. Try to be consistent. But also remember that the goal is to get them used to wearing it when going outside and any time it is needed. So once they are able to tolerate it without distress, start varying the time of the practice sessions throughout the day and where they practice (again encouraging them to come up with this plan rather than telling them what to do).
Phrases to try might include: "Great job! You tolerated wearing the mask for 3 minutes today which is 1 minute more than you did last time."
Other Ideas and Strategies: