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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.