"Who took my charger?" is becoming a pretty common phrase in my household these days. With four digitally connected people in the house, those chargers seem to missing more often then they're in the place they were left. I can say from experience that parenting in the digital age is not easy.
I also have to admit that I struggle with this as a parent myself. My own children, age 15 and 12, are pretty much glued to their devices (primarily iPhones) daily. My wife and I have tried it all in an effort to manage usage. From designating screen time to locking out the wifi, to more radical measures such as taking phones away and "grounding" them from the phones, we still seem to be looking for the 'just right" solution.
As a school principal, I am being asked on a regular basis to assist parents who are equally as frustrated with similar concerns. Specifically, the questions are about amount of screen time, exposure to questionable content, activity on specific apps, cyber-bullying, lack of sleep, and even addiction. If you are experiencing some of these concerns, just know you are not alone.
Alberta educational researcher, Phil McRae, has been part of a team looking into the impact of the digital age on our kids. Here is a summary of some of the findings in Growing Up Digital:
1) 67% of teachers say the number of students negatively distracted by digital technology is growing
2) 90% of teachers indicate the number of children with emotional challenges has increased
3) 56% of teachers say the number of students reporting cyberbullying has increased
4) 66% of teachers are observing students coming to school tired, with decreased ability to focus
5) 76% of teachers frequently or very frequently observe students multi-tasking with technology
Dr. Michael Rich, the Mediatrician, and The Centre on Media and Child Health, have a wealth of resources to assist parents of children of any age. Some of the most consistent tips to parents include:
- Help you child manage their time online
- Establish an evening charging station so your child does not bring their device to their bedroom
- Set time limits for screen time, and give them reminders such as "you have 5 minutes"
- Watch for warning signs that device time interferes with sleep or even eating
- Model your expectations by putting your own advice away at family times such as dinner
Paul Davis, is a Canadian presenter who specializes in Social Networking Safety. His TED Talk offers "real talk" and many helpful tips to parents. Some of Paul's key points include:
- The parent is the owner of the phone / device / internet account and are responsible for it
- There is always a trail of internet/online/App activity no matter if you think it's anonymous (it's not)
- Your online activity as a youth follow you into your adulthood and can impact your employability
For many of us, we feel a bit out of our element in dealing with these technology issues and we are not digital natives like out children are. We are being asked to navigate these deeply impactful issues through a rapidly changing landscape. Throughout it all, I have to keep reminding myself that I am the parent, and that I have to not only establish the boundaries, but model the way for my own children. Being open and honest, and educating my children about their digital identity is part of the process. I also know that doing nothing is not an option, and that in some way I think my children are looking to me to help them make the right choices, as they always do.
One of my favorite routines during the day is greeting our students (and parents) as they arrive in the morning. Seeing the smiling student faces as they hop off the bus or enter into the school campus is always pretty uplifting, and a high-five is a great way to start the day. While I have a long way to go before I can match my singing and dancing Arkansas colleague Gary Logan (goo.gl/9eIfeV), I am not ruling out the possibility of giving it a go someday.
Being visible in the morning is one of the most effective techniques I have found in building meaningful relationships with students and parents. From first eye contact, I can tell exactly what that student might need. For most, it's that simple high-five or a greeting, but for others a "good morning" is an invitation to tell a whole story of the events of the previous evening or weekend. Some of the very best stories come from birthday parties, athletic events, music performances, family vacations, play dates, and of course, visits from grandma and grandpa. I am thankful that I get to hear about a lot of these special moments.
I believe that seeing the principal out front of the school every morning allows the students a predictable time where they know they will be able to find me at least once throughout the day. And while the principal can never match the same relationship that student has with their teacher, sometimes it's the presence of another caring adult at school that can make an impact.
These interactions have another benefit: the building of social capital. Positive interaction after positive interaction set the stage for the "withdrawal" that sometimes needs to happen when students make bad decisions. Students know that a mistake is just that, and that the care the adults in the building have is unconditional. I feel that my students also feel that level of trust even though the next morning interaction might include a "hey, let's make some good choices today" or "I'm going to be checking in with you later on".
My hope is that these quick social interactions set the tone for a safe and caring school, and that our students know they are welcome and valued each and every day. I wouldn't be completing the picture if I didn't mention those days when students arrive at the school angry, upset, crying, tired or hungry. These days happen, and when they do I am glad that I am there to welcome these students.
I appreciate our students for getting my day off to a great start, and I hope I can do just a bit to return that favour. Who knows, maybe one morning I will bring out the karaoke mic and belt out some of my favorite tunes. I do know all Frozen songs by heart.
"Who's watching that kid in the red shirt? Where are his parents?"
I can vividly remember the day I ran into Red Shirt Kid. It was one of those wonderful summer days where we packed up the young family and headed to Calaway Park. As kids are apt to do once you've gone and paid a lofty price to enter the park, they headed right for the free, non-mechanical, nothing special, Freddie the Fireboat playground area. I wasn't too worried about it at the time though because the sun was shining, I already had my popcorn, and the rest of the day was bound to be great. The playground was a bit different in that it was a kids-only play area. No parents were allowed, or could even get inside the structure. My wife and I bid our then 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter farewell and took our seats on the observational rock seating waiting for them to come out.
My son was gone, but my daughter would make her way into our audio-visual range to wave and get our attention with a "Mommy, did you see me..." or "Daddy, watch me...". We smiled and continued our adult conversation. Everyone was happy. That was, until Red Shirt Kid showed up.
Red Shirt Kid made his first appearance as he bumped my daughter as she was waving to us. He was big - larger than most kids at the playground, but what made him stand out even more so was his pace. That kid was moving! And there was no obligatory "excuse me" as he cut his path. This kid was on a mission. Captain's steering wheel? Look out kid, I'm the captain now. Cargo net climb? Move it kid or I'm going over top of you. Red shirt kid was taking no prisoners, and he had some of us parents making eye contact with each other and proverbially rolling our eyes. Then, Red Shirt Kid made his big mistake. He knocked my baby girl to the ground and made her cry.
I sprang to my daughter's side. A hug, a couple kisses and a reminder of the ice cream I had promised seemed to do the trick. After a minute or two she was clambering to get back into the playground to be with her brother and new-found friends. I, on the other hand, was going to make sure Red Shirt Kid got a message from me.
Now, as a teacher, I was pretty sure my interaction was going to be pretty grounded, soft and casual, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't running a bit hot. As I made my way toward the entrance of the playground I scripted out my words to Red Shirt Kid carefully. I scanned the crowd wondering if I could spot his parents. Then I waited for him to zoom by the entrance so I could grab a quick word. As expected, I could hear him before I could see him. I knew he was coming. I calmed myself and prepared to launch in, but I never did say anything. Before I could open my mouth, I quickly read the words on the front of that red shirt. They read "Be Patient With Me, I Have Autism".
I can't really explain fully what the next hour or so was like, but I think you can see that by talking about this all those years later that it had a very profound impact on me.. I can say directly in moment that my mood switched from irritation to compassion. I talked to my wife (also a teacher) about how awesome that shirt was and how proactive his parents had been for putting it on that day. While she's always interested to talk about these types of things with me, I am sure that the next hour was probably exhausting for her because I don't remember stopping my running commentary on it. Some of the things I thought about then and since included:
I didn't notice Red Shirt Kid doing anything too offside on the playground after that moment. I wonder now if it's because he slowed down a bit, or because my own way of thinking changed. I didn't say anything to him, and I didn't make out his parents either. What I did end up leaving the park with that day was a tired, happy family, and an awareness that every kid we meet has something special and unique about them and it's our job as professionals to find out what it is. Believe me, they don't all wear helpful t-shirts.
As I began my teaching career, I became very close, very fast with my colleagues. As a single guy living on my own away from my own family in Ontario, my work friends became my family. We laughed and cried and shared moments beyond teaching. We cared for each other.
I can distinctly remember a conversation with my team teaching parter who was somewhat terrified to inform our principal that she was serioulsy ill and was going to be needing to take some time off work. The tears were visible - the outward expression of fear and the unknown. Sadly, the illness was very closely related to stress, and according to her, the biggest stressor was how she was going to tell the principal. I was somewhat surprised, because I thought it was a pretty easy thing to do. "Just tell her", I can remember saying. "I know, I know" she said behind the tears as we walked together down to the office where she would initiate the conversation.
Over the past few years I have found myself on the other side of that conversation. Now I'm the one that the staff have to come to. Each time one of my colleagues comes to my office door and greets me with "do you have a minute to talk?", or I receive an email saying "can I meet with you?" I recognize that my role shifts a tiny bit, moving from the principal, to that of caring colleague.
The pending conversations can be followed by unwelcome news, usually dealing with health concerns, involving themselves, their children, their spouse, or their parents and extended family. There is often, as with my team partner all those years ago, tears and sadness. There is also another feeling I have had trouble explaining.
Not all conversations are sad. Some are joyful - "I just wanted to let you know that my husband / my wife and I are expecting a baby". Some are exciting - "My spouse won a trip and I am going to need to take a week off work". And some shockingly wonderful - "I am thinking about a career change and am going to go back to school to pursue a law degree". Despite the nature of the conversation there does seem, from my end at least, that a conversation with the "boss" can be a real defining moment at that particular stage of the process.
Not too long ago, I experienced that range of emotion myself. I had to inform my own boss that I would be needing to take some time to return home to Thunder Bay to be with my ailing father. It was the closest I have come to explaining that feeling I have had trouble with. For me, it was relief. I guess it meant that I was able to step away from my job to deal with something more important. My boss was nothing but helpful and it meant the world to me at that time. Even though I knew she would be supportive, there was something about just telling her that made me feel better. It was kind of like getting permission to deal with what needed to be dealt with.
I realize, and humbly accept the responsibility I have in my role as principal to be able to listen to, support, comfort and celebrate with my staff during these moments in their lives. I know and care for my staff. In that way, we are family. We're here for each other, and we're here in our best times and worst. My hope is, that as a caring colleague my staff never have to experience the stress of telling me what they need to say.
I was in the classroom when my team partner came back after her meeting with the principal all those years ago. She was still crying, but she was laughing too in that wild way we do when we're overwhelmed with grief, joy and relief. "What did she say?", I asked. "She gave me a big hug and told me it was going to be ok." Of course it was, because making things better is what a family does.