First Person

Ask an Expert: My child is overweight, what to do?

Editor’s note: This question came in after we ran a post about what to do when your daughter says she’s fat. 

Q. What if your daughter IS overweight?  How does a parent handle this issue without causing disordered eating? We have made healthy meals and snacks a priority in our home and physical activity a part of our lives, yet she still is overweight.  

A. This is such a terrific question.  There are so many “moving parts,” no pun intended! The body needs food, water, exercise, managed stress, sleep and sunshine. (I added sunshine to this list, but there is scientific backing for it.)

With some detective work and some positive intentions, this doesn’t have to be a continued issue. And whatever you do, do not put your daughter on a diet.

First a little “food for thought.” We have such a focus, as a society, on weight and appearance.

It’s important to understand some of the underlying factors: Fitness level, muscle strength, structure or build, eating habits (later night eating or eating sugar at night can turn into stored weight), cravings, emotional style (does she express or hold emotions in?), stress level, and sleeping habits. If she’s a taller girl, she may have larger bone structure and higher muscle mass.

Kids grow at different rates and that’s OK

I have worked with many kids who appear “heavy” to the normal eye, and especially during certain parts of their childhood. They are some of the fittest most athletic children but don’t appear that way all the time. Health is based on more factors than just weight.

The interesting part is that when these seemingly “heavy” kids grow up they end up perfectly within the “normal” range. The growth cycle is funny: Oftentimes kids will either grow “wide” before they grow taller, or they get really thin and long before they fill out.

Kids need approximately 60 minutes of intensive exercise six days a week. If she’s playing sports, I’m assuming that part is covered. In fact, some bodies may tend to “hold” more weight if the exercise is too extensive, mostly as a protective measure.  Too much exercise appears to the body like extra stress.

Is your child under stress?

Next, where she carries her weight is another component. Weight around the face, on the back, or around the belly can be an overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is naturally produced by the adrenal glands to help us respond to stress and challenges. But during times of too much adrenaline release, the body stores unused energy (calories or food) as fat (like extra storage). What produces excess cortisol? Things like conflict or resistance think of it like the flight or flight helper. Or it can be overproduced from lack of sleep. Kids her age need about nine to 10 hours of sleep each night.

I lovingly liken it to a protective flotation device around the middle during times of difficulty. This is also when we become emotional eaters, often trying to “eat” our feelings, or get rid of uncomfortable emotions. Or it can be other emotional issues going on under the surface, things like feeling bad about ourselves, or a low self-esteem.

Typically, an “emo eater” will go toward things with a high amount of calories, fat, or sugar. Salty or sweet, the food does taste good and solve our primal need for comfort.

Food is the fuel to help kids get that exercise and is just as important as the exercise itself.

A calorie is not a calorie

This is the part that may be the most frustrating to your daughter because not every type of food works the same on every body. A calorie is not just a calorie. Some kids can eat any amount of junk or food they please, and yet never gain an ounce! Some bodies don’t react as well to a heavy load of carbohydrates or sugar. And during stressful times, the food isn’t used as efficiently as it is during more peaceful times.

There are also typical food allergies that a body can create a “fight” with certain types of foods. I’m “sensitive” to gluten (very common), and I’m sensitive to sugar (less common).  You can take advanced blood tests, (called the ALCAT), do skin tests with an allergist, or I’ve seen results from more holistic methods through chiropractors or acupuncturists.

No easy answers

There is no easy way or one simple solution to this. I would never recommend even coming near the word “diet” when working with kids.

Here are some things to try:

  • Introduce the idea of outside-the-box solutions when it comes to food and nutrition, even making it fun. One idea is “mindful” eating. What foods “feel” good, taste good, smell good…engage all the senses.
  • Cut out sugars and high fructose corn syrup (and it’s mates) out of your diets. Move toward a more natural approach to foods, also cutting out processed foods that have been chemically altered to taste yummy. We don’t always know the results that these chemicals have on our bodies.
  • Start the entire family on the track of learning about healthy or organic eating. As much as I love protein, you can even try going vegetarian one meal a day. Or a whole week. Change up the type of foods, trying new vegetables or everyone in the family has to create or cook one new healthy recipe a week. My friend, Julie Hammerstein, is a terrific nutritionist who uses the concept of Go, Slow and Whoa foods – the idea being that kids can learn which foods are good for them, are OK for them, and are not healthy, and also what a proper portion size looks like.
  • Bring positive attention to foods, and not negative attention to your daughter’s shape. This is the ultimate goal. There are so many ways to tackle this situation, and it can be about the whole family.

Please keep us informed on your progress, and we can all share the lessons.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.