Q&A: Chief Schools Officer for the Children’s Health Council Chris Harris

By Robert Haugh

What do you see as the biggest challenge for parents during shelter-in-place?

Balancing their family, personal and professional lives while still having time for self-care.  This last part – “checking in with yourself” – is the part that I am afraid people feel they don’t have time for. Neglecting this is what will ultimately sabotage their well-being.  

For children?

Trying to make sense of what’s going on and how and why life has changed so dramatically.  Children don’t have the frame of reference or past experience to process unpredictable events and they can’t envision what options for a “new normal” might look like.

What are some suggestions for parents seeking activities and supplies?

Rather than get into specifics, parents should reach out to the many organizations in Santa Clara County which, like Children’s Health Council (CHC), will have a list of many resources and ideas for recreating during our shelter in place.  I think it is really important during this time that children get outside for some time each day to take a walk, ride a bike, chalk draw on their driveway and get off their devices and out of their rooms.  

Any recommended resources?

Parents can find great resources at http://chconline.org/. There are many COVID-19 Resources including parenting and family tips, mindfulness resources, and upcoming webinars that parents can sign up for.

How would you mention guidance vs. discipline to parents? Are there any specific techniques or models you recommend?

In short, the key is to positively discipline; to “catch your kids doing right” and overtly acknowledge them when you do catch them. This is needed now more than ever.  Also having a weekly family meeting where the family comes together and reflects on what went right and “not so right” in the previous week and then sets a plan for the coming week taking everyone’s input so needs and desires can be addressed and incorporated.  This also helps parents to really take time to listen to their children without feeling they have to react in the moment. These strategies will help keep emotions from boiling over though it is inevitable that there will be “moments”.

What are your thoughts on screen time? Do you believe there’s such a thing as “quality” screen time?

I sure do. That’s what distance learning with all its emergent variations are.  Distance learning is tangibly reducing any slide-back parents are concerned about in terms of their children’s academic progress.  What’s not healthy is to have the computer be the only mode of communication, learning and entertainment. It is our duty to find healthy balance and incorporate that into our children’s lives so they don’t come to believe that all this – learning, communication, relationships – only happens on a screen.

If so, what are some screen time recommendations? Any learning programs or apps you recommend?

Again there are so many excellent resources out there for learning applications I can’t even start to name them. As for limiting screen time, I have highly recommended that the students (and incidentally the staff) in my school get off the computer for their “lunch/recess time” in the middle of the day for 45 minutes and that they get off again (students and staff) for at least an hour and preferably longer at 3:30.

For children with behavior challenges, such as attention disorders, what do you suggest for parents for keeping children engaged?

For children with attentional challenges, setting a timer for how long they need to be attentive and then giving a movement break for a specifically limited amount of time has been the most successful. Of course a student with these challenges needs to believe and then see that they have been tangibly productive during their on task time in order to a) derive a feeling of accomplishment b) elicit the praise they deserve which can then c) accumulate points/stars etc. for some kind of incentive. Ideally the teacher will be able to segment the lesson and student work to match the child’s attention span.  

Mr. Chris Harris is Chief Schools Officer for the Children’s Health Council (CHC) and currently serves as the interim Director of the Sand Hill School, one of the divisions in CHC that works with children with Learning Differences and social challenges. He has been with CHC for over 20 years, previously as the Director of the Esther B. Clark School division of CHC, a non-public therapeutic day school for students who have behavioral and emotional challenges. Mr. Harris also serves as an adjunct lecturer at San Jose State University in the Department of Special Education for the past 10 years.

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