Talking with Students About Online Sexual Content

By Liz Bergren

Talking with Students About Online Sexual ContentWe all know that the rise of the internet has created amazing opportunities for us to access information within seconds. We understand that we have access to anything we want at our fingertips. We love this access, we use it . . . and we know that without monitoring its use, it can have serious consequences. We also understand that access to anything within seconds is the reality of our children’s lives, too, and that education around how to be safe online is crucial to their health.

When you type “internet safety” into Google, hundreds of Department of Education websites pop up with their policies. It is certainly clear that we know safety online is a need for our children and that it must be prioritized in schools. When I was a health education teacher, internet safety came up in discussions about hard topics including eating disorders, drug use, and sexual health. The internet is not a safe place for kids to learn about certain topics if they haven’t had direct instruction on how to evaluate online information.

Our hypersexualized culture has been a topic of conversation among parents, teachers, and administrators for years. TV shows, advertising—even some toys that our children play with—have been created to look sexual. Those of us involved with children are consistently concerned about what they are exposed to and how it may impact their decision-making and their sense of self. It has become our responsibility to help the children and teens we work with sift through the constant bombardment of sexual imagery.

One critical topic we have to face is kids’ exposure to explicit sexual content online. It is undeniable that tweens and teenagers, with their brains swimming in hormones, will likely seek out information as well as explore sexual imagery online despite our best efforts. According to a 2015 New York Times article, “Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography,” researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have been conducting studies on children’s exposure to pornography since 2000. The researchers found that 42 percent of online users ages 10 to 17 had seen pornography and that 66 percent had seen it without seeking it out in ads on file-sharing sites. That same article reports that another study by the University of New Hampshire found that “93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during their adolescence.” So where and when is it appropriate to discuss internet pornography with our kids?

Over the years, I have had many discussions with other teachers in my position, and I found that education on exposure to sexually explicit imagery and its impact on one’s health was rarely incorporated into health lessons. After 15 years in the classroom, I also found that the level of sexual health education in the home varies significantly. I would often poll my students about how many of them had had discussions about sexual health with their parents or guardians, and the number of hands in the air was usually about 5 or 6 out of 30. That’s not a good sign.

We can’t ignore the fact that our children are curious and will explore what is at their fingertips. The health implications of overexposure to pornography are stated well in a 2016 article published by the American College of Pediatrics, “The Impact of Pornography on Children.” The article states that the negative effects of pornography can include mental disturbance, acting out, and violent behavior. It also can cause a false understanding of healthy sexual relationships, can increase insensitivity toward women, and can lead to a greater acceptance of promiscuity and violence in sexual behavior.

Many adults feel awkward having this conversation with children. For help, here are some tips on how to start discussions with your students on internet pornography:

  1. In a classroom setting, it is wise to build up to the conversation. Students need to feel safe and trust the facilitator, especially when the lesson or discussion is on a sensitive or controversial subject. If in a health class or a unit on media literacy, start with a lesson on how media influences our interests, what we eat, what we purchase, and how we feel about our bodies. Use examples of different types of media, and have students explore their own thoughts and feelings about what they see. At home, look for teachable moments, such as seeing sexual content or images in pop-ups online or while watching TV with your child.
  2. Students can explore how sexual imagery is used to sell products or how celebrities seem to hypersexualize themselves to sell their image or their music. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Maureen Palmer produced a 43-minute film titled Sext Up Kids: How Children Are Becoming Hypersexualized. This film, released in 2012 by Media Education Foundation, explores the concept of “porn culture” and how accelerated pressure to be sexy and sexual is changing kids’ behavior, attitudes, and overall sexual health. Maureen sits down with parents and educators who are struggling to help kids navigate our media-saturated cultural environment. For more information on this film, visit
  3. In a classroom, you can segue into a discussion about internet pornography by polling your students on how many of them have stumbled across sexual content on the internet without intending to do so. More than likely, most of them will raise their hands. Pornographic content can pop up during internet searching regardless of the topic being studied. You can do the same thing at home with your child; ask them if they’ve ever seen anything that made them uncomfortable when searching online. Help them understand that, just like everything else we see in our media, some sexual behavior portrayed online is not normal or healthy to see or watch regularly.
  4. Older students can spend some time exploring research findings on how watching pornography can become an addiction, as well as any other health implications they can find and share with the class.
  5. Over the past five years, the New York Times has posted several articles on the influence of pornography on tweens and teens. A great resource on how to generate discussions with kids on this topic is a small series of stories in the New York Times, “How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography: Parents’ Stories and Expert Advice.” Teaching materials by American teachers or publishers that are appropriate for the classroom seem to be hard to find. But organizations in other countries seem to be producing helpful materials for teachers, such as MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy. As a teacher, it is important to research the effects of pornography on children so you can identify appropriate objectives and see where this topic can fit into state standards. Checking with administration and notifying parents prior to teaching about this subject is necessary in some schools as well.

In the New York Times article cited above, we read of a mother who went to her computer and found in her history that the term “child porn” had been searched recently. When she asked her tween-age son about it, he explained that he was trying to find sex that was appropriate for children to watch because he was curious. The bottom line is that this topic has to be discussed. It’s unfortunate that our kids are exposed to content that can negatively affect their health, but it is our reality and our responsibility to help them be healthy consumers of media. As educators or educational leaders, if you can take it upon yourself to integrate this type of education into your school or curriculum, you will be helping the students you work with make healthy decisions about sex. We would love to hear how you have integrated this topic into your curriculum or how your school handles topics like this. Feel free to share in the comments any stories or advice you have.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Anger Management for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Elizabeth Reeve, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)

Anger Management for Kids with Autism Spectrum DisordersAnger, something we all feel and learn to cope with, can be difficult to manage for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Controlling anger is a complex process of recognizing the feeling of anger and subduing the impulse to act on that feeling. For a person with ASD, recognizing a feeling of anger may be impossible. Many of us who identify as neurotypical struggle with impulse control, and asking that of a person with ASD at a time of emotional upset may be unrealistic. Despite these barriers, coping with anger is an important task to learn. With some patience and understanding, everyone can improve their anger management.

  • Don’t spend excessive time trying to figure out why someone is angry. Look for obvious triggers, but do not overanalyze. For example, if you know that loud noises are upsetting, it makes sense to remove a loud noise to prevent an angry outburst. However, if no immediate trigger is obvious, move on! Remember that what upsets someone one day may not be what upsets that person the next day, so spending excessive energy looking for an elusive single trigger means less energy for helping, responding, and distracting. The reality is that despite all your efforts, you may never figure out why something happened or what caused an angry outburst.
  • Distraction and redirection are the keys to quick crisis resolution. For higher functioning kids, supply a list of distractions they can readily access and implement. It works well to keep an electronic list handy on a cell phone. The items on the list need to be easy to implement and readily accessible. Ideas such as deep breathing, walking away from the situation, and listening to a favorite song might work well. Apps for deep breathing and relaxation available for phones and tablets are also very useful. When working with someone who needs more support, redirect immediately to an alternative activity or space rather than trying to figure out what is causing the problem. Carry a favorite toy or activity or, if appropriate, a treat to eat.
  • Avoid excessive talking! When working with someone who is overwhelmed, upset, and has a social language disorder, do not use language to solve the problem. Think of all the times you have been angry or upset in the past and how difficult it was to explain or discuss your situation during the event. Even the best communicators fail to communicate effectively when they are emotionally distraught. Talk less and do more. Physically redirect rather than giving verbal instructions. Do not ask “What is happening?” or “Why are you upset?” Use simple words and direct instructions without judgment, such as “We are going to go to another room,” rather than “What is wrong?” or “You need to be quiet.” For high-functioning kids with ASD, do not engage in debate or discussion when they are angry. Perseveration and repetition all increase during times of emotional upset, making logical discussion virtually impossible. Instead, focus on behaviors and remind kids that you will “talk” later. If they are shouting, respond by saying, “When you’re done shouting, we can talk.” If they are repeating the same comment over and over, you might say, “You are stuck and repeating. When you are done being stuck, we can talk.”
  • Provide ways to help identify feelings quickly without the use of words. There are many charts or picture systems that kids can use to point to a picture to express how they feel. Apps for tablets or phones are available to identify current feelings and also to practice how to better identify social cues and facial expressions of others.
  • Remember that it is always easier to change the environment than it is to change a person’s behavior. For example, if angry outbursts routinely occur when you go to your local grocery store, then consider changing how or where you do your grocery shopping. Keep in mind, though, that the goal for people with ASD is to increase their tolerance to change and transition. This means that you should carefully plan times when exposure to change and the resulting potential anger and outbursts are manageable. Do not make changes that you know may induce anger on a busy day when a meltdown will cause problems.
  • Anger may be the result of medical illness. For nonverbal or less communicative individuals, anger, agitation, or irritability may be a response to pain, fatigue, or physical discomfort. Observe changes in sleep habits, appetite, or bowel and bladder routines. Sore throats and ear infections are easily missed in people who cannot express themselves.
  • Anger may also be a symptom of an underlying mental health concern. Depression, anxiety, and ADHD may be present in people who seem to have increased anger or irritability. Treatment for these underlying conditions may decrease angry episodes. Careful evaluation is needed to identify mental health conditions in people who have developmental differences. Finding a specialist who is comfortable working with this population is often a challenge. When looking for a provider to help with a mental health evaluation, make sure the professional has other clients with ASD. If symptoms are significant, medications may be recommended and can often be very effective in managing severe behavioral dysregulation. Talk-based therapy focusing on developing coping strategies and managing stress can be useful for patients without significant cognitive difficulties. Talk-based therapies that focus on gaining insight or discussing why someone is upset may be less effective and frustrating for someone with ASD.
  • Use support systems. Sometimes anger seems much less significant if you are able to take a break. Community supports are crucial in order to prevent caregivers from experiencing excessive stress. Remember to take care of yourself and make sure your own anger is in control, and you’ll be able to better manage your loved one’s difficulties. When was the last time you had a vacation?

Finally, do not over-personalize situations. Working with someone with ASD who is struggling with anger or emotional dysregulation is a challenging situation for anyone. Figuring out the right thing to do to manage anger and behavioral dysregulation can be a long and difficult path with no clear guidance. Advice is often contradictory and confusing. It is not you who is doing something wrong; you’re doing your best!

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.Elizabeth Reeve, is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the workforce.

Survival Guide Kids with ASDsElizabeth Reeve is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?

By Eric Braun, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give

Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?Probably the one thing I wanted more than anything else as a kid was the Millennium Falcon. That toy, a Star Wars spaceship the size of my torso, was the coolest thing I could imagine. To this day, I can’t think of anything I’ve ever coveted as badly as I did Han Solo’s “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

Today, of course, our kids want smartphones—more than toys, more than bikes, more than anything. And while I’m sure my parents had some consternation over whether to buy me the toy I wanted, I’m also sure that the decision whether—and when—to get my kids their first smartphones was way harder. The Falcon was expensive, sure, and like the ever-present screens of today, it did threaten to keep me indoors instead of playing outside. But a smartphone puts the internet, with all the good and bad it contains, at kids’ fingertips. The galaxy is not so far, far away anymore—and that’s a scary thing.

My wife and I gave each of our sons a smartphone when they started middle school. We arrived at this decision based on several factors. They were walking to school and a phone seemed like a good idea for safety. We wanted to be able to reach them when they were out. We wanted them to experience some responsibility. And sure, they wore us down. After all, everyone else has one!

That may not be the best reason to take the leap, but according to a 2016 report, we weren’t early. The average age for a child to get his or her first smartphone is 10.3 years.

Every family is different, and obviously your budget is going to be one of your biggest considerations. Smartphones aren’t cheap, nor is the added cost to your monthly phone plan. Beyond that, if you’re wrestling with the decision, there are a few questions to think about.

What Are the Pros and Cons?
There are plenty of good reasons to get your child a phone.

  • Convenience. Staying in touch doesn’t get much easier.
  • Safety. If your kids walk to school or take a subway or bus, knowing they can call you in a pinch provides some peace of mind. And you can reach them if needed, too.
  • Social interaction. It’s probably true that (nearly) everyone else has a smartphone, and responsible cell phone use can be a great way to stay in touch with friends.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to be wary.

  • Social interaction! You probably have heard about the dangers of cyberbullying, but even beyond that, constant texting, posting, liking, worrying about getting likes, and so on can create a high-pressure atmosphere that is consuming and stressful.
  • Unfettered access to the internet. It’s super easy to stumble across inappropriate material, whether kids are looking for it or not. There are ways to limit access, which I’ll get to below, but no system is perfect.
  • Increased screen time. Experts say that kids spend about seven hours a day on screens. That’s too much according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. When we give our kids smartphones, we’re only opening the door to more screen time.
  • Potential for disrupted sleep. Pediatricians report that an increasing number of their patients are seeing their sleep disrupted by cell phones. Four out of five kids who use smartphones keep them near—or on—their beds. Sleep is important for kids and teens.

Is Your Child Ready?
There’s really no right age for a child to get that first phone. Every child is different, and maturity and responsibility are more important than a number. A smartphone is a powerful tool that allows kids to create content such as text, photos, and videos and upload it to the web, so it’s important that our kids have responsibility to match their tech savvy. Ask yourself:

  • Is your child generally responsible?
  • Do you think your child can and will use the phone responsibly at school (not texting in class or using the phone to cheat)?
  • Does she lose her belongings often? A smartphone is one expensive belonging.
  • Does he obey family rules? Keep promises? It’s important to know that kids will comply with phone use guidelines you establish.
  • Does she understand the permanence of anything uploaded to the internet? And how easy it is for anything sent via phone to become public?

What Are the Rules?
If you decide to buy a phone, establish guidelines for use. Besides restricting adult content, these guidelines should include when kids can use their phone as well as what apps they’re allowed to use and what websites they’re allowed to access. Many families begin with these rules:

  • No phones during mealtime.
  • No phones during class.
  • Turn in phones to a parent one hour before bedtime.
  • Don’t take anyone’s photo or video record them without their permission.
  • Answer a parent’s calls and texts right away.
  • Don’t respond to calls or texts from unrecognized numbers.
  • No sending inappropriate content or texts.
  • No personal conversations in public places.
  • If your teen is old enough to drive, no using the phone while driving.

I recommend being fairly strict with restrictions from the get-go; it’s a lot harder to instill new rules later on if kids have gotten used to, say, sleeping with their phones under their pillows.

Some families make a cell phone (or “wireless”) contract laying out the rules that everyone signs. Here’s an example from the wireless trade association CTIA. And here’s an interactive Family Media Plan maker from the American Academy of Pediatrics that you can go through with your child to make your individualized agreement. Fill it out, print it, sign it, and hang it somewhere you’ll all be reminded of it regularly.

How Will You Set Up Restrictions?
When we bought our first son’s phone, there wasn’t much you could do to restrict content, but times have changed. The iPhone and most other phones now have robust parental restriction tools. You can control what apps kids can download and use, you can turn off in-app purchases, and you can restrict explicit content in music, movies, and TV shows.

You also have a lot of freedom for controlling their web use. Block adult websites, block specific websites—or block all websites and allow only certain exceptions. Here’s a video from Common Sense Media on how to do it all on an iPhone.

You can also set up monitoring services on your kids’ phones, some of which are described here, and you can set up a schedule on most routers to turn off wi-fi at certain times to help enforce your rules.

By the way, it’s important to be upfront with your kids that you’re doing this. That way they won’t feel like you’re spying on them. Rather, it’s part of the bargain: They get to have fun with this cool tool and they get the social connectivity that comes with it, but ultimately it is yours. That means you share open communication about usage, and you have final say about usage. Meanwhile, they are learning super-important lessons in responsibility.

Finally, remember that you are a role model, so you will want to set a good example. Don’t obsessively check your phone, don’t use it while driving, and put it away at mealtime. Make sure kids see you doing a variety of things with your free time, like reading a book or walking the dog, more often than they see you scrolling Facebook on your phone. It all sends the message that a smartphone is a tool, not the focus of our lives (even though it sure seems like it sometimes!).

Navigating the tricky parenting decisions around smartphones—as well as all the other tech that fills our lives—can be intimidating and exhausting. But we have to embrace these challenges, because tech isn’t going away. If we help kids master good tech manners, make good tech decisions, and find a healthy balance of tech time in their lives, we’re preparing them to be tech-healthy adults.

May the Force be with you!

(I know, you totally saw that coming.)

Author Eric BraunEric Braun writes fiction and nonfiction for kids, teens, and adults on many topics. Recently, one of his books was launched into space to be read to kids on Earth by an astronaut on the International Space Station. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, sons, and dog Willis.

The Survival Guide for Money SmartsEric is the coauthor of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Introducing Free Downloadable Classroom Posters and Coloring Pages

Free Posters November 2017Brighten your classroom walls and share valuable social-emotional lessons with free downloadable posters and coloring pages from Free Spirit Publishing. Every month you’ll find fun, colorful, and educational posters for early childhood, elementary, and middle school classrooms, each available to download and print in two sizes (8.5″ x 11″ and 11″ x 17″).

Check out our newest posters for November:

Hands Are Not for Hitting PosterEarly Childhood

Little learners can get creative with this free coloring page while learning that hands are not for hitting—hands are for waving hello!

How to Be a Good ListenerElementary

This colorful poster helps talkative kids learn the art of listening in four simple steps.

Marvelous MannersMiddle School

Encourage respectful behavior in students with six tips for marvelous manners.


Click here to download and print your free posters and coloring pages.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Happy Thanksgiving

Happy ThanksgivingIt’s Thanksgiving in the United States, and the Free Spirit staff are celebrating with family and football, turkey and traditions, wishbones and whipping cream. Our office is closed today and tomorrow while we take time to remember all that we’re grateful for.

Most important, we are grateful for you, the educators and parents who dedicate their lives to helping children succeed.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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