6,570 Days and a Crystal Ball

By Virginia Hrywnak, DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician and avid reader, hiker and weed-puller

Mother Holding Child's Hand “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”                              Anne Frank

As a mom, I spend a lot of time trying to help my own kids make wise, healthy choices. I try to empower my 2 daughters to make healthy choices even when I’m not with them. For the first 5 years of my career I was privileged to deliver babies as part of my full-spectrum family medicine practice. Each of those deliveries were unique, some were truly terrifying, all were amazing miracles. I’ve often thought back to those days when I’m trying to stay calm while convincing my 10 year-old to spend more than 5 minutes doing her homework, or when encouraging my 6 year old to eat her vegetables. Because time is fleeting. From the birth of our kids to age 18 is only 18 years or 936 weeks or 6,570 days. And we don’t get a crystal ball to catch even a brief glimpse of them as adults. We can just do our best, every day, in every way. There are many wise, witty statements about parenting; there are also hundreds of books, articles, blogs and websites devoted to helping people be better parents. But just like the first time you were handed your newborn, or joined with your adopted child, or foster child, or step-child you went from NOT being that child’s parent, to BEING THE PARENT. What a huge leap! We take lessons to learn to drive, swim with scuba gear or fly a plane. But no lessons or manual is required to be a parent. So we try our best to set them up for success in health, learning and life.

Success in health starts with healthy eating, enough sleep, play time and social support. Have your kids wash their hands, before eating, when getting home, after playing. Try eating a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins and complex carbohydrates every day. Have a consistent bedtime routine and stick with it. Talk with them about not smoking, drinking alcohol or trying drugs. Use the appropriate booster seats, helmets, safety gear. Teach them how to swim. Play outside every day.

Talk with your kids about HOW and WHY to be a good friend and model those behaviors in your interactions with others. Being a good listener, being empathetic, kind and caring are skills that should be taught, just like learning how to tie our shoes or ride a bike.

Learning starts with reading, writing and math right? But it also includes developing a love of learning. Make learning fun, check out your local library, have a designated place to study and start the school year off with a consistent routine. Have concerns? Touch base with your child’s teacher early and often. Stay involved.

Now let’s imagine if as parents, we did get to have that fleeting glimpse of our now 18 year old child in that mythical crystal ball! What picture would you want to see? Let’s make “Healthy the New Happy for Kids” where being well and learning well is part of every kids future.

Kids First: Start It, Share It, Live It

By Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist,
Healthy Learning Paths Instructor, shayna@reachinghighereducation.com

“Those tasks I have can
wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”

Professionally, I talk to parents about the importance of communicating and actively listening with their children.  However, there are moments I have to remind myself to do the very same thing with my children.  Sometimes I move quickly during the day, making sure to complete my work responsibilities while getting all the chores competed.  While these tasks are important, the first day of school served as a reminder for me about the importance of communication.

After the first day of school, I was thinking about 7 or 8 tasks I still had to complete before the day was done.  However, my children came off the bus full of emotion and thought.  They needed to talk with me.  One child likes to talk while eating his after-school snack.  My other child likes to wait until bedtime when we sit quietly in his room.  I reminded myself, “Those tasks I have can wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”  During snack, I heard about the new routine in 3rd grade, friends he played with at recess, and the PE schedule.  At bedtime, I heard about 6th grade and new teachers, new routines, and new opportunities.

Reminding myself to pause, look and actively listen allowed me to learn about the classrooms and my children’s experiences.  Listening helped continue to build the foundation for future communication about other topics, some more sensitive or related to personal decisions and safety.  I know I can do those 7 or 8 tasks after communicating with my children.  If they tell me they need to talk to me now, I pause, look and actively listen.  I want to be ready to provide support or answer hard questions when my children need it.

Communication helps maintain the emotional and physical foundation of the relationship between parents and children.  It fosters continuous bonding and attachment, feelings of safety and support, structures for safe decision-making, and frameworks for understanding world events.  I have to remind myself each day how important this communication is both physically and emotionally.  By actively listening and communicating, we promote strong and lasting relationships with our children.  I am glad I received the reminder to communicate on the first day of school.  I am glad to share my experience with you.

Tips for communicating and actively listening with your child:
• Put other tasks and activities aside
• Move to your child’s eye level and make eye contact
• Listen
• Keep your body relaxed and open, show you are ready to hear anything
• Nod and make statements showing you are listening
• Show empathy about situations if needed
• Communicate your child’s feelings back: “Sounds like you feel…”
• Share your feelings about the topics with your child
• If your child has questions, ask what her thoughts are first and then provide your insights or ideas and ask her to think about them and how they may work
• Model thinking time or problem solving when needed
• Keep words and body language nonjudgmental to help your child to open up about more difficult subjects
• Tell your child “thank you” for talking with you and you love having this time to connect, use words you find come naturally to you

In closing, Diane Loomans reflects:
“If I had my child to raise all over again, I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later.  I’d finger-paint more, and point the finger less.  I would do less correcting and more connecting.  I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.  I’d take more hikes and fly more kites.  I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play.  I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars. I’d do more hugging and less tugging.”

Do Your Kids Feel Alone?

By Dr. Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist, Healthy Learning Paths Instructor,     Reaching Higher Educational Center, shayna@reachinghighereducation.com
Does your child feel alone?
Does your child feel alone?

 “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”                            -Robin Williams

World events often highlight social and emotional needs and questions for children and families.  At these times, many families look for services in their community to support social and emotional needs of their children.  These are mental health needs.  Mental health impacts physical health and learning.

With school starting, families can find support by connecting with their school principal, school counselor or school psychologist.  Often these individuals provide or connect families to support for social and emotional needs.  In addition, agencies such as the Colorado Department of Human Services (or similar in other states) have links to county and community programs to support children, families, and individuals.  When families encounter emergencies, they are able to reach support at all times of the day through calling phone hotlines.  These hotlines help prevent suicide, violence, and community and school threats.

Families work hard to meet all the needs of their children.  But there are times when all of us can use some help.  Reaching out to the community for support for social and emotional health promotes positive growth in school and in the community.  When families ask for help, children witness a powerful skill. Children use the skill of asking for help when solving problems in health, learning and life.  Mental health support builds the foundation for children’s success both now and in the future.

Mental Health Resources

Community Agencies:
Colorado Office of Behavioral Health:  303-866-7400
CO Department of Human Services can be found at http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/CDHS-BehavioralHealth/CBON/1251581449824

Your Child’s School:
Ask for School Principal, School Counselor or School Psychologist

Prevention of Youth Suicide:
Second Wind provides support for youth at risk of suicide.  While it is not a hotline, support can be found through this organization.  Denver Metro: 303-988-2645, Boulder County: 720-212-7527, http://www.thesecondwindfund.org/Counselors-Corner.html

Safe-to-tell to report safety concern or concern about wellness: 1-877-542-7233, http://safe2tell.org/contact-us/

National Suicide Prevention Lifelineto receive support to prevent suicide:
English: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), Espanol: 1-888-628-9454

Beyond The Backpack: Start It, Share It, Live It

Start It, Share It, Live It!
Start It, Share It, Live It!

By Virginia Hrywnak DO,
Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician, avid reader, hiker, and weed-puller

It’s August and the start of school is just around the corner.  As we prepare for sending our kids back to school, we often shop for school supplies, buy back-to-school clothes and shoes, get haircuts, and replace the summer routine with the new school schedule.  As you help your kids prepare for the upcoming school year consider adding these 12 items to your “To Do List.”

  1. Tell your kids you love them, every day, whether they’re 5 or 15.
  2. Teach them how and why to be kind.  It’s a skill like any other.  Kindness needs to be taught.
  3. Actively listen when kids talk.  Unplug from electronics and LISTEN.
  4. Eat breakfast every day, EVERYDAY.  Your brain is starving.  Dinner was a long time ago.
  5. Eat fresh fruits and veggies every day.  Are your kids picky eaters?  You’re not alone.  Keep trying.
  6. Drink water and non-fat milk instead of soda or juice.  If you don’t buy soda and juice, kids learn to drink water and milk.
  7. PLAY outside.  Use a ball, frisbee, chase the dog, make an obstacle course, or walk.  Just play.  Have you heard?  Play is exercise.
  8. Kids and adults are sleep-deprived.  Go to bed. Turn off the TV and computer.  Practice the same bedtime routine every night.  Might seem hard at first, but your brain, mood, and body will thank you.  Kids will thank you with happiness each morning!
  9. Have a concern about something your kid does or says?  Look into it, get help, talk to your kid, the teacher, or your doctor.  Don’t ignore it.  Most problems don’t get better on their own.
  10. Let your kids fail in small, safe ways.  Yes, FAIL. When you rescue them from everything, kids learn a) parents don’t believe kids can handle it, and b) success or achievement is more important than effort and enthusiasm.  The stakes only get higher as kids get older.  Offer gentle guidance, so kids can learn how to solve problems.
  11. Post this article on your refrigerator for a daily reminder.
  12. Read this advice from Maya Angelou with your kids.  Start it.  Share it.  Live it.

I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.  I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:  a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.  I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.  I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.”  I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.  I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.  I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.  I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.  I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.  People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.  I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.  I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

We Can Do Better for All Kids

by Virginia Hrywnak, DO (Family physician, mom, HLP staffer, blogger)

Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of an education.” ― Alice Waters

Let’s look at the stats- The US spends the most money on health care of any developed nation in the world and yet we rank 37th in the health of our population (The World Health Report 2000, Health Systems: Improving Performance).  Why?  What can we do about it?  WHO can fix this problem?  Is it the politicians, doctors, health insurance companies, schools, food industry, and soda companies?  Is it the parents?  The kids themselves?

When parents bring their kids in for a well-child check or sports physical those 15-20 minutes are spent in a hurried, information-gathering, hectic session. How about a sick visit- is that the time to counsel parents about their overweight child or the aggressive behavior that is causing problems in school? Sure, in both cases, the health care provider should talk about the big picture- the kid’s current and future health issues.  What’s the take home message to the parent? Are parents open to the information?  Can parents accept the work needed for change?  When it comes to health, many parents describe an uphill battle.  All too often, I hear,  “He just doesn’t like veggies.  She doesn’t like sports.  He only watches a couple hours of TV a day.  She doesn’t drink much soda.”  So what do we do?

Today, the health of kids has become a political soap-box.  It has become a hotly debated, somehow increasingly polarizing and partisan issue. School lunches, “Let’s Move” campaign, limiting the size of sodas, guidelines on stricter food nutrition labeling, cutting out sugar, and the list continues to expand.  Is this approach going to make a long-lasting, sustainable difference in the health of our nation’s kids?  I’m going to be politically incorrect now.  It’s not a partisan issue.  It’s not up to the fast food or soda companies.  It’s up to ALL of us to own this responsibility.

Kids need healthy foods all day every day.  Kids should have at least an hour of outdoor play everyday.  Screen time should be limited.  Kids shouldn’t be sleep deprived.  Let’s teach our kids the Golden Rule of Health and Happiness: Everyone has the power to choose and share health and happiness.  Kids need to know how to be a good friend and care about others.  Kids depend on us to teach them why and how to eat, sleep, move, and other skills needed for success in health, learning and life.  Let’s teach this generation not only that they have one life, one body, but also how and why they CAN take good care of it.

Treasure your health and teach your kids to treasure theirs.  You have the POWER.  We ALL do.

Sleepy Kids

Sleep is a necessity, a vital part of a healthy life. It’s also often the least consistent part of a child’s daily routine. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most American school aged children (ages 5-12) are sleep deprived. School aged kids need 10-11 hours of sleep a night but often get much less. Sleep deprivation can affect their ability to learn, concentrate and focus. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to problems with problem solving skills, emotional health, social interactions, and mood. Their brains need the growth and development that takes place only during sleep. Children that are sleep deprived have an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, emotional problems, and problems learning. Many parents describe difficulties getting their kids to sleep. Increased use of video games, TV and computers before bed can cause difficulties falling asleep, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and poor sleep quality. The facts are clear, the numbers are startling and yet most of us have let our kids stay up past their bedtime.

How can parents start to reverse this trend?

First, have a consistent bedtime routine. Healthy Learning Paths teaches kids the “High Five for Sleep”. Second, active kids sleep better at night, so encourage at least one hour of active play a day. Next, kids, like adults, need a quiet transition to bedtime. Turn off the screens at least one hour before starting the consistent bedtime routine. Kids need 10-11 hours of sleep a night, EVERY NIGHT, even on weekends. Let’s make “Healthy the New Happy for Kids!” Happy Sleeping!

-By Virginia Hrywnak, DO

Test Time!

It’s that time of year again. Standardized test time- TCAP for younger kids, ACT/SAT for high school students. These tests are used to measure a student’s knowledge and skills.  However, the results often don’t reflect the true abilities of the student. This is likely due to several factors. Test anxiety, poor preparation, poor skills, negative attitude about school, previous negative test taking experience, and low self-confidence. Research has consistently shown that kids whose parents are involved in their formal education tend to do better in school. So how can parents help? A good place to start is with the basics. Kids know when the tests are scheduled, usually, well in advance. They’re actually often very aware and may be anxious as a result. Keep them in a routine but allow plenty of downtime. Fun, active, playtime! Don’t overschedule their activities. Ensure they get plenty of sleep. Provide them with nutritious protein and complex carbohydrate containing meals. Teach simple relaxation techniques and reinforce using them. Counting to 10, while breathing slowly, is a great place to start. Try to avoid chaos at home- “where’s my backpack, shoes?” etc. Get to school ON TIME. Talk to them about staying focused on the test, even if others are finishing early. Have realistic expectations but do remind kids that the test is important. Be available to your child, talk but more importantly, LISTEN.

All parents want their kids to be caring, successful adults. Parents are the most important teachers in their child’s life. How can we create lifelong learners and instill a love of learning? Give your children a broad foundation of knowledge on a variety of topics. Play, talk and listen, be together. As Emerald Elementary in Broomfield, CO says “Calm, cool and ready for school!” Happy testing!

Help for Holiday Stress

The holiday season is fast approaching, ideally a happy, fun time with our family and friends.  Holidays are a break from the school and work routine and often include special music, food and family traditions. However, the holidays can also be very stressful, even for children.  Heightened family dynamics- divorce, remarriage, military duty, family strife, loss of loved ones, financial stress, lack of adequate sleep, overindulging in treats, impact our kids at the holidays as well.

Often, our expectations of the holidays and the reality when we get together with loved ones are what creates the stress. As adults, we bring with us our memories of our early childhood experiences and expect gratitude, good behavior and happiness from our kids. Our kids are bombarded with media messages that often encourage the latest toys, technologies and unhealthy foods. As mammals, we innately have strong attachment needs and often think “this holiday season will be different”. Yet, despite our best attempts, we feel more stressed than happy, more overwhelmed than overjoyed, more frustration than gratitude. Luckily, our brains are very plastic and we are able with some tools and self-awareness to CHANGE our expectations, not always easy, but doable.

A good place to start is by each family member writing down their expectations (even little kids can have you serve as a scribe for them). Do this soon, before the full holiday season starts. What type of celebration, foods, dress attire, activities, even toys does everyone expect. Meet as a family and compare lists. Especially important in step-families with blended traditions, there may be different cultural or religious backgrounds. Not bad or good, just different. Schedule in downtime- unstructured but important. Introverts and extroverts will see downtime differently. Have teens agree to a calendar of events/expectations “must have” “really like” and “optional”. Empower your kids. Plan ahead that not everyone will have their expectations met.

The American Psychiatric Association offers some helpful tips.

We at Healthy Learning Paths wish you a healthy, happy holiday season.


Written by Virginia Hrywnak, D.O.

The Sweetest Month

HalloweenOrangeOctober is a beautiful month in Colorado and we experience everything from summer-like days to snow.  The trees are changing from vibrant green to reds, oranges, and yellows.  It is glorious!

On the home front, kids are already dreaming of Halloween.  They love thinking of a perfect costume, imagining dressing up, and thinking of all the candy and treats that lay ahead.  Moms and dads, however, dread the onslaught of sugar that October 31st can bring.  From now through the New Year, normal, everyday good eating habits often get sabotaged.  Make a resolution NOW to end 2013 in a healthier way.

Encourage your kids to consistently eat foods that are healthy for their bodies.  Although treats seem inevitable, moderation is key.  Our bodies don’t work properly and we don’t feel our best when we are bogged down with sugary drinks and candy.  Furthermore, sugar may be linked to a number of long-term health problems, including worsened cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity (not to Tooth_Supermention the havoc wreaked on teeth!).  Teaching your kids from an early age to identify good-for-you foods versus not-so-good-for-you foods will allow them the chance to make healthy choices throughout life.  While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional sweet, day-to-day habits should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains – even after the bags full of candy roll home.

Another problem we face around Halloween time is sleep.  Kids need 10-12 Kid_Sleepinghours of sleep depending on their age, and this applies both during the week and on weekends.  Unfortunately, trick-or-treating can push bedtimes back often by several hours.  In general, try to get activities started earlier in the evening or afternoon so that your kids can stick to their normal bedtime routine.  Get homework done soon after school, set an earlier dinner time, and allow for some downtime after dinner so that your child can get a good night of sleep before facing the demands of a new day.  As for trick-or-treating, starting earlier will allow for better daylight visibility and keep your child’s bedtime as close to normal as possible.

After Halloween is over and the pounds of candy are sitting around (more than most should eat in a year!) think of alternative uses for that candy!  Many businesses offer to collect or even buy back some of that candy to send overseas to military personnel.    Have your child pick a certain number of favorites and donate the rest!  Alternatively, get out your hot glue gun and glue candy onto a wreath, or have your kids use craft glue to make a candy mask or picture.  (Of course, don’t eat candy that has been glued on a craft).  Be creative and your kids might forget about eating all that candy and have fun playing with it!

Enjoy trick-or-treating with your kids but keep candy consumption in check and stick to your normal bedtime routine to keep everybody feeling their best during this holiday season.


Written by Darby S. Petitt, Ph.D.

Emotional Support for Children During the Colorado Flood

By Dr. Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist


The devastating flood that occurred in Colorado this last week has had dramatic effects on the families and children in our state.  It has disrupted our normal routine by isolating families and necessitating rescues, interrupting cell service prohibiting contact between friends and families in need, and cancelling schools preventing access to typically constant supporting community members.  Some families have lost their belongings, suffered severe water damage, or needed emergency rescue.  Other families did not encounter such loss.  However, all individuals, families and children are affected by this tragedy: Those who have experienced loss and those who are left wondering why they were spared and how they can help their neighbors and community.  All children express their emotions in different ways and at different times, no matter their personal experience with these storms.  Some children discuss their thoughts and worries, others demonstrate behavioral changes, and some search for ways to reach out to their community.  These emotional expressions may be observed right away or after the passage of time, and they may persist for some time or increase and decrease repeatedly over time.  Resources from organizations such as National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and American Psychological Association (APA) help to guide us as professionals, parents and community members.  These organizations provide several ideas for helping to support and reassure our children:

  • Communicate any family needs or emotional changes of children to your children’s school.  The school can help connect your family and children to services for housing, transportation, and emotional support.
  • Reduce exposure to television and news for the near future to lessen anxiety and intense emotional responses.  Because children are experiencing increased stress related to the flood, any exposure to additional stressors reported on the news will increase anxiety and other emotional reactions.
  • Calmly discuss with your children that the flood occurred but reinforce their safety by telling them that many people at home and in the school help to keep them safe and plan for their safety in community buildings.  Relate that the priority of family and educators is safety.
  • In discussions about the flood, focus on the fact that many people have come together to help families to safety.  Make sure to point out these heroic and empathetic gestures and focus on describing the compassion people show within the community and nation when helping to care for others and rebuilding the community.
  • Be prepared for their emotions to change frequently.  Some emotions that children may experience are sadness, anger, elation, and/or anxiety.  You may observe shorter attention spans, irritable behavior, and increased or decreased energy levels.  Let your children know that any emotions they feel are acceptable and provide the support and comfort they need.  Be prepared for these emotions to be demonstrated at different times.  Often siblings will experience and express emotions in very different ways as well, even when they saw the same events.
  • Be aware that children may have a trigger for emotional or behavioral change, such as the smell of rain, the sound of thunder, a cloud moving overhead, or seeing areas in need of clean up.  Allow for emotional change and provide the comfort that your child needs.
  • Keep your schedule as normal as possible to continue comfortable routines, but allow for emotional expression and flexibility in activities as needed.  You may see increased anxiety or emotional expressions if your children experience a trigger, and you may need to alter plans to decrease anxious feelings.
  • When you and/or your children are experiencing significant emotional or behavioral changes, it is appropriate to ask for support.  You can find support through your children’s school, a community health organization, or the Red Cross.  It is natural that we all need support when experiencing extreme stress.  Finding this support allows us to again feel safe and secure and capable of handling additional stresses that come our way.
  • Discuss with children that time will be needed to rebuild or to find a consistent place to live.  While you may not know specifics, you can indicate that it will take time and that the community and school will be helping.
  • Help children identify their personal strengths about how they have supported others and coped in times that were difficult in the past.  If your child feels guilty for not experiencing the loss many others have experienced, they may need to identify ways they can help others.  Often giving to the community can ease this feeling of discomfort.  Also, let them know that we feel guilt when we cause something, and that we did not cause this event.  While they may feel guilt, they were not responsible for the tragedy.
  • Get to now the safety plan at your children’s school and ensure that you are linked to the communication notification system that your school or district provides.  Reassure your child that you are connected to these emergency notification systems.
  • Develop your own safety plan for natural disasters and instruct your children in the protocol.  Reinforce how the plan will help keep the family safe and together.  Indicate that the events are unlikely to occur in the future but that planning helps to make sure family members are safe.

(Gathered from NASP and APA resources)

There are extremely helpful resources available for parents and educators on the Internet.  Please take time to read them and utilize the suggestions and ideas as needed.

  • www.nasponline.org
    • This site has links for parents, administrators and teachers.
    • http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/naturaldisaster_ho.pdf
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
    • This site has many resources related to traumatic situations children encounter.
  • www.APA.org
    • This site has a link to a helpful page for parents to provide ideas for supporting their children and themselves.
    • http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/index.aspx

As a community we can support the needs of our children.  These helpful resources can guide our discussions to allow us to comfort our children and help them know we strive to keep them safe in any situation.