Post-election in Austin schools: Finding comfort in community

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

The past few weeks since Election Day have posed significant and unusual challenges for educators across the country. When divisions among adults are as strong as they have been during the presidential campaign, tensions, fears, and misinformation inevitably come out among kids on playgrounds and in classrooms.

In a report released this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that schools and universities are the most common places that hate-based incidents take place—including attacks against immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, and the LGBTQ community. More than 10,000 teachers surveyed by SPLC detailed 2,500 fights and threats related to the rhetoric of the 2016 election, increasing use of racial and ethnic slurs, and the appearance of swastikas and Confederate flags around their schools. From the survey’s executive summary:

Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

We asked some members of the Alt Ed Austin community to talk about what they are seeing and hearing among their students and what kinds of constructive, positive steps they’re taking to support kids, parents, and each other.

Individual and group discussions, with the goal of intellectually understanding the dynamics of the political conflicts, as well as sharing and processing a variety of emotions around the election are important to all the educators we heard from.

Kristin Kim of Sansori High School says, “I encourage [students] to see beyond the layers of realities created by polarization, and be aware of when they are drawn in to reactiveness.” She wants to help them avoid repeating patterns of conflict. 

The team at Skybridge Academy focused on the question of vulnerability, and discussed bullying and how to be an ally to people who need support. Students were allowed to share their feelings anonymously and to discuss them in groups. Skybridge’s co-director, Ariel Dochstader Miller, says she believes the students’ open sharing and discussion helped students, but more discussions are needed to move forward “in a healed and unified space.” “We came to the conclusion that the way through these defensive walls, both literal and emotional, is empathy and compassionate relating and sharing.”

“We focused much more on what we could do for one another than dwelling on what we could not control,” says Antonio Buehler of Abrome. Antonio shares a detailed response on his blog, focusing on how Learners can “transcend electoral politics” and better society in myriad ways.

At KọSchool, the full student body of 8th–12th graders gathered to talk about personal empowerment in times of dramatic change. Students discussed feelings of victimization across the spectrum of political viewpoints and shared their own struggles to keep open minds and not condemn those whose beliefs clashed with their own.

There is also great value, for students and their families, in physical activity—whether it’s work or play—and intimately connecting with the natural world. Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms says she’s been contacted by several schools that would like to get out among the plants and animals on a “medicinal” field trip. “Teens are especially upset,” she adds, “so I will be putting them to work, giving them some nature therapy.”

Most important, we in the Alt Ed Austin community adhere to the belief that schools must be safe and nurturing homes-away-from-home for all children.  We could not say it better than Austin School Board Trustee Paul Saldaña said it in a moving letter to all the families of Austin ISD:

I want you to know how much I admire the concerns you have expressed this week for your friends, classmates, and schools. And I encourage you to have these thoughtful conversations among your peers and with your teachers in the classrooms. It’s okay for you to express any concerns you may have and to find your voice and use it with conviction. Most importantly, I want to reassure you, that your school and classroom is your home and your sanctuary. It belongs to you and you are safe.

Please take a look at Paul Saldaña’s letter here.

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

You may also be interested in some resources designed for Teaching Tolerance by the SPLC. Using the hashtag #StudentsSpeak, the Teaching Tolerance program is collecting photos with a wonderful variety of heartfelt advice for President-elect Trump on their Facebook page (a sampling of which we’ve included in this post). Take a look, and see how your students can participate here.


Behavioral interventions for ADHD

Dr. Lindsay Evans is a child and adolescent psychologist at the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter). In her work with children and families, she is often asked about the best interventions for individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or similar concerns. In particular, many families want to know if there are any effective treatment options for managing ADHD without medication. We’re grateful to Dr. Evans for addressing these questions here as a guest contributor.

Many parents are surprised to hear that comprehensive ADHD treatment should always include a strong psychosocial (non-medication) component. Behavior therapy has been shown to be an effective behavioral treatment for child and adolescent ADHD. In fact, for preschool age children (under 5), the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavior therapy as the first line of treatment for children. For older children, research indicates that when medication is the only form of treatment, it generally does not lead to positive long-term outcomes. And, importantly, a substantial percentage of children and adolescents with ADHD may be able to avoid using medication if good behavioral treatments are employed. If behavioral interventions are not sufficient, the combination of medication and behavioral modifications strategies can be considered.

Behavior therapy involves using positive reinforcement and structure to help modify a child’s behavior and environment. The interventions can improve the parent-child relationship, and teach children concrete skills to help them function better at home and school. Because they work best when coordinated across settings (home, school, and community), behavior therapy typically involves three components:

  1. Parent training
  2. Teacher consultation/school interventions
  3. Child-focused treatment

Behavior therapy often helps to reset the “magic ratio,” or the frequency of positive to negative interactions and feedback that a child receives. A more in-depth description of behavior interventions for ADHD can be found at the Center for Children and Families

Parent Training

The first and most important aspect of behavior treatment for ADHD is parent training. As we often tell parents in our practice, although many parents know standard (good) parenting strategies, having a child with ADHD can require a “black belt in parenting,” which is where Behavior Parent Training comes in. Parent training programs (such as Parent Management Training/PMT and Parent-Child Interaction Training/PCIT) are typically provided in weekly individual or group sessions, lasting 12–18 weeks. Parents are taught specific strategies and are asked to practice those in the session with their child or to go home and practice for a week. At the next session, the family reviews their progress with the therapist, problem-solves, and learns new skills to assist their family. Here is a more detailed description of Behavior Parent Training and how to find a provider in your area.

Consultation/School Interventions

School interventions typically involve having a child’s teacher provide more structure and positive reinforcement (e.g., specific verbal praise and a sticker chart) in the classroom to help a child reach specific behavior goals. Teacher involvement is critical because behavior therapy is most effective when it is consistent across settings, times of day, and people. A “Daily Report Card” coordinated between teacher and parent can be a very effective method for helping a child reach specific goals at school (a parent guide for starting one can be found here: ADHD parent resources). Coordinating with teachers is an integral piece, and we have listed some tips about parent and teacher collaboration at our ApaCenter blog.

 Child-focused Treatment

The third part of behavioral treatment involves teaching children how to improve their interactions with other children. Social skills interventions are typically most effective when they are implemented in school or recreational settings, and the training typically needs to take place frequently for the child to learn the skills (e.g., such as through daily practice at school or in Saturday or summer therapeutic recreational programs). Besides social skills training, a new intervention called Organizational Skills Training has also been shown to improve organization, time management, and planning skills in elementary school children with ADHD.

Finally, it is important to note that individual or small group counseling sessions with children in a therapist's office (such as “Play Therapy”) are not effective for treating child ADHD because they do not help a child practice new skills in other settings. Behavior therapy is effective because it teaches concrete skills to parents, teachers, and the children themselves.

And, a quick note - when I am providing guidance to families about how to help their child, I rely on recommendations that are backed by scientific evidence. Some great websites for finding unbiased information about interventions for children are and Treatment guidelines for ADHD in children can be found at the Center for Disease Control website (believe it or not, a great resource for parents!). Importantly, ADHD is a chronic condition and children with unmanaged ADHD are at risk for poor academic performance, greater problems (such as substance use) in adulthood, and difficulties in their relationships.

Some parents at this point may be thinking, “Gosh, that seems like a ton of work!” And they’re right that behavior therapy does require time and commitment from parents on the front end. But, once learned, the skills quickly become a more natural part of a family’s routine, and they set up a child for more success both in academics in their relationships. The extra effort on the front end can help a child overcome challenges in daily life functioning, which can be valuable in managing ADHD throughout a lifetime.

Dr. Lindsay Evans

The whole world in one Houston school

If you’re feeling in need of a tonic right now—something to nourish and pep you up and get you through the end of the year with a smile on your face—I have a suggestion. Have you seen the Houston episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN?

The full episode celebrates the gorgeous, charming, and fascinating people of Houston, including hip hop car enthusiasts, Vietnamese fishermen and shopkeepers, Congolese and Ghanaian urban farmers, Mexican American families, and a larger-than-life Indian American radio host. But for the Alt Ed Austin community, the most inspiring visit Bourdain made down in Houston was to Margaret Long Wisdom High School (formerly known as Robert E. Lee High School). Principal Jonathan Tranh, a Vietnamese immigrant himself, led a tour of “the most diverse high school” in a city where minorities are now the majority. At Wisdom HS, 80 percent of students speak English as a second language, and dedicated ESL instructor Gary Reed is one of the keys to the kids’ future success.

Suffering through a typical cafeteria lunch of chicken sandwiches, fries, and canned fruit salad, Chef Bourdain spoke to students from Iran, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador. You’ll love the little glimpses of these students’ dreams of engineering, fashion design, and soccer—and be sobered by the knowledge that so many of them come from dangerous places to which they dare not return. There’s one theme that’s repeated in every segment of the episode, in every corner of Houston, where each person interviewed praises the city’s compassion, climate, and boundless opportunity: “Welcome to America.”

If you have cable, you can probably see Bourdain’s episode “on demand,” and if not, it’s available on the CNN app, and for purchase on many platforms.

Shelley Sperry

Austin author's new book helps kids write loved ones' life stories

Jess Hagemann is an Austin-based ghostwriter and award-winning author. Her company Cider Spoon Stories helps people write fiction and nonfiction books. The newest Cider Spoon book, titled Notes from a Distinguished Life, is a DIY guide to family history for kids ages 8–22. It retails for $40 on the Cider Spoon website.

Even in heat-stricken Texas, the short, dark days of winter can make you want to hibernate. Last January, business was slow and Sunday afternoons were long when I decided to pass the time with crafting. I’d always loved collage art, and the unread magazines in our house were plentiful. With The X-Files reruns on Hulu in the background, I set to cutting out and trimming random bold words, colorful images, and isolated textures. Somewhere around the Martha Stewart Living caption “It’s time to share your stories,” I had the idea for a new book.

I’m a ghostwriter. That means I help people write books—life stories, in particular. A typical day for me is sitting down with a grandma or grandpa and my voice recorder and listening to them cry and laugh their way through recollection. It’s a time-intensive process, and while you can’t really put a price on leaving a definitive legacy behind, the service can be cost-prohibitive for some families. Enter Notes from a Distinguished Life.

Notes from a Distinguished Life is a 70-page, full-color, 100% interactive guide for kids to interview their family members. Each page of the book was originally hand-collaged, painted, and designed with an eye toward bright colors and maximum student engagement. Each page also has one or more questions, prompts, or activities to stimulate critical thinking and meaningful discussion. It’s a book meant for families who want to “ghostwrite” their loved one’s stories themselves.

No one underestimates the power of story. As children, we came to know firsthand the special ability of stories to transport the imagination. Foreign lands, exotic creatures, long-gone worlds, and far-distant futures unspool in the mind’s eye when we hear about them. They are, in some sense, made real. What people too often underestimate is the amount of time left to tell stories, and to listen to them. If I had a dime for every person who’s said, “I wish we’d hired you when Mom was still alive . . .” It doesn’t have to be that way. You and your kids can capture the stories now; you can craft a legacy that your loved ones will feel proud to leave behind!

My maternal grandfather’s name was Jackie L. Schrader. He was an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy, and later, chief arson investigator for the Wichita fire department. I was fortunate, while he was still alive, to help Jack write his life story. I didn’t have the same opportunity with my paternal grandfather, Donald Hagemann. Don was a lifelong farmer, permanently suntanned and wind-whipped and quiet in the way that introspective old men are. I never got to ask him if he liked being a farmer. Did he name all his cows? How did he feel about being a father to nine children (my father among them)? What was life like in the 1940s? I won't get to ask these questions, but you can.

Please do.

Jess Hagemann

Computer science is integral to a strong education

Lisa Zapalac is one of the co-owners of Long-View Micro School, an innovative new school in Austin that has a strong STEM focus. Lisa’s background in schools is extensive, as she has served as a principal, curriculum director, and teacher, working in both private and public schools, from preschool to high school. She is a dedicated proponent of early computer science and coding instruction and sees the results daily at Long-View.

We teach all children to write, but we don’t expect them all to necessarily become writers. In a world in which computing is ubiquitous and drives innovation in nearly every industry, it is important that we teach our children from an early age how to harness what is called “computational thinking.” Computer science is the broad area in which much of this would be taught to children, and computer science is now foundational to a strong education, right alongside reading, mathematics, science, and writing.

All kids will not end up as computer scientists, though we want many more to make that choice, as 71% of all new jobs in STEM are in computing and only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science. However, most of our children will eventually find their jobs or their passions crossing over with computing. Whether they someday own a small business and recognize an app would accelerate revenue or they become a biologist who sees that the application of statistics, mathematics, and computer science holds the key to relations among several biological systems, computer science is key to being broadly educated and ensuring choice in future career pathways. This is sometimes referred to as the “double-deep” mandate, as the workforce will increasingly require sets of skills within technology and a secondary area, such as business, medicine, or sales.

Computer science is not just about sitting at a computer and coding. One might think of the relationship between arithmetic and mathematics (there is so much more to mathematics than only arithmetic!) when understanding coding and computer science. When taught properly, computer science will challenge students and teach them to approach problems in new and rigorous ways. It will stretch their logical thinking skills, and help them develop mindsets such as being curious and flexible. The core concepts and big ideas of computer science are broadly transferable, as CS is a discipline just like history, physics, or mathematics. It has a body of knowledge, and the thinking skills of the discipline will last students a lifetime. And there is ample evidence that the discipline of computer science is accessible to children in elementary school and onward.

What does it look like for young children to engage in a computer science class? Yesterday I watched a third grader, with a little bit of extra time on her hands, decide to challenge herself to code something she’d learned in math that day. She set forth to figure out how she’d write a program that allowed the user to consider two sets of numbers and then find the intersection of the two sets.

The third grader’s first thought was, “I don’t really know how to do that. The only thing I know for sure is that I can start with a print statement.” Using her knowledge of Python, she coded a few lines that would print onto the screen both sets of numbers, with six elements in each set. She then iterated her code by adding a line asking the user to consider both sets and then enter the value that represented the intersection of the two sets. After a peer tried out the fledgling program, the hard-working young computer scientist realized she had a problem to solve. What if the user inputted the wrong answer? How could she add to her program so the computer would respond by telling the user the answer was incorrect, and then allow for a new answer to be inputted?

The logical thinking and problem solving terrain that this young eight-year-old traversed, while also having to leverage her beginning knowledge of Python, is nothing short of remarkable. First and foremost, she was a curious learner who sought intellectual challenge. She found a starting point and had the stamina to continue breaking apart her problem. She was able to simultaneously think about the user’s experiences, the set theory she learned about in mathematics, and the coding language to which she’d been newly introduced. What a thinker!

As Jeannette Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and VP of Microsoft Research, wrote in her seminal article in 2006, computational thinking “represents a universally applicable attitude and skill.” Her vision helped inspire innovation across the world, with England, as an example, leading as the first country to mandate computer programming instruction in primary and secondary schools. President Obama signed the U.S. education law called “Every Student Succeeds” and with it recognized computer science as a “critical academic field.” Our children live in a digital world, and we need to prepare them for the digital world by ensuring a baseline understanding. Computer science should be part of every child’s education experience.

Lisa Zapalac

“The gentle art”: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and self-defense for kids

Chris Wilson, a student at Integração Jiu Jitsu here in Austin, joins us on the blog to explain the benefits of this Brazilian form of self-defense and how it differs from some of the better-known martial arts. IJJ is offering a free self-defense workshop designed for homeschooled kids this Thursday, Nov. 3, from 10:30am to noon.

What does it say about our society that many, if not most, parents don’t place self-defense skills very high on their list of important things to teach their children?

Perhaps we should see it as a good thing, an indication that today’s world is safer and less threatening, so spending time on self-defense seems unnecessary. I can see that perspective, certainly here in Austin. An article in Texas Monthly last year placed Austin as number 21 of the 24 most dangerous cities in Texas. That’s fairly good news, but it doesn’t mean self-defense isn’t important as a life skill.

The fact is that kids need to learn self-defense not so much to protect themselves from crime as to protect themselves from other kids. We all know the damage that bullying does to a person. I certainly do. I was bullied for several years growing up. The thing is that I was only attacked physically two or three times. But I was intimidated daily. I was afraid of other kids, even kids my own age, who were just bigger and meaner than I was. How I wish I had been taught to defend myself when I was growing up!

But I’m really not sure that it would have helped. In my day, if you wanted to learn to defend yourself, you took Karate or Tae Kwon Do. So, that’s what I did with my kids. I put them in Karate by the ages of 8 and 6. Sitting on the bench in the dojo one day, after both boys had been at it for over a year, it hit me. They had learned nothing. They punched and kicked at the air. They blocked imaginary attacks with gusto. But they had no actual skills that would protect them from someone who wished them harm.

Sure, they had the confidence that came from breaking boards and getting a new belt every 9 weeks, but they would not survive their first real fight. Why? Because most fights end up on the ground, where Karate and Tae Kwon Do have nothing to offer. Moreover, kicks and punches prolong fights and make them more dangerous—exactly the opposite of what I wanted for my children. I struggled with this realization and eventually concluded that I had to find something else to prepare them for the bullies and jerks of the world.

Then I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The words mean “the gentle art” in Portuguese. Ironically, while it professes to be gentle and almost entirely defensive, Jiu Jitsu is, hands-down, the most effective approach to fighting and self-defense that exists on the planet. Don’t take my word for it. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was started in 1993 to showcase the superiority of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over all other fighting styles.

The UFC in its early days was brutal. No gloves. No holds barred. Anything goes. It was bloody and often hard to watch. We saw giant men in overalls (street brawlers) face enormous chiseled wrestlers and black belts of all types, representing everything from Kung Fu to Boxing to Karate. And who won? The little Brazilian guy using his Jiu Jitsu. He won again and again. Even today, Jiu Jitsu skills are essential to success in mixed martial arts on any level. It’s just that effective.

But this is not about what it takes to become a top-level mixed martial artist. This is about what kids need to protect themselves from other kids. It turns out that the gentle art is superior for this, too. Here’s why:

  • The focus is on defense and on de-escalating conflict. To punch is to attack. To kick is to attack. Even if you’re counter-punching, you’re counter-attacking. That is not de-escalation. Kids who practice Jiu Jitsu do not spend time punching and kicking the air. They spend time learning how to stop or redirect punches and kicks as they gain control over an attacker. They spend time learning how to get the other person to simply walk away.
  • The objective in Jiu Jitsu is to get the aggressor to stop attacking. If a bully knows he cannot win, he will stop. Or, if she knows she will suffer injury if she doesn’t quit, she will stop. This is the fundamental premise of Jiu Jitsu.
  • Training in Jiu Jitsu is real. Students spar against one another in every class. A kid who trains in Jiu Jitsu knows what to do when a fight breaks out, and he or she knows what to do when it goes to the ground (which it almost always does). The mental preparedness that comes from regular sparring is a very big part of the self-defense equation. Being mentally prepared for a fight causes a kid to exude enough confidence to stop it before it starts.
  • Jiu Jitsu equalizes size and gender. This is because Jiu Jitsu relies upon leverage-based control holds to neutralize threats without violence. Students learn to use their opponents’ size and strength against them. These days, when a smaller kid stands up to a larger, meaner one, the big kid should be worried. There’s a good chance the smaller kid knows Jiu Jitsu.
  • Jiu Jitsu is intellectually stimulating. When kids realize the principles of applying leverage using their bodies, a world of possibilities opens for them. They start to recognize that every sparring scenario is different and what they can do is limited only by their creativity and experience. Practitioners of Jiu Jitsu often refer to it as “human chess.”
  • Jiu Jitsu is FUN! While there is certainly some structure to a Jiu Jitsu class, there is also a great deal of room for play. Kids can get great exercise while rolling around on the mats, competing with one another in a peaceful and friendly way. They often don’t even realize how much they’re learning.

All in all, Jiu Jitsu has been transformational for me and for my two sons. I only lasted about two months on the bench watching before I signed up and started training myself. That was four years ago, and now I have the privilege of owning a Jiu Jitsu school with a world-class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. It is such a pleasure to watch my kids and the other kids at the school grow through Jiu Jitsu.

It has given them all the confidence they need to stand up to anyone who wishes to push them around or intimidate them. It has given them the skills to not only look after themselves, but to defend those around them when no else can or will. Most importantly, it has taught them how to turn a potential conflict into nothing, which is the ultimate in self-defense. If you haven’t considered Jiu Jitsu as a self-defense/fun activity for your kids, I highly recommend it. Just google Jiu Jitsu in Austin. There are schools all over town. If you want to visit ours, just check out our site at for class times.

Stay safe, Austin!

Chris Wilson