Crisis Looming: Report Finds Problems With NYC Impartial Hearing Office

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A state-commissioned report recently found significant process failures in New York City’s special education hearing system.  Although not a formal audit, the analysis, conducted by Deusdedi Merced of Special Education Solutions, LLC, was meant to identify practices that were either inconsistent with “standard and best legal practices” or impediments to the timeliness and efficiency of the system.  The reviewer’s preliminary findings suggest that a “crisis” in New York City is imminent, potentially threatening students’ access to due process.

The reviewer’s discussion is framed around the considerable and expanding number of complaints filed in New York City, the focus of Chalkbeat’s recent article covering the external review; the overwhelming number of due process filings in New York occur in New York City alone.  In fact, they have comprised over 90% of yearly complaints filed statewide since the 2014-2015 school year.  Moreover, in the most recent available data, i.e., the 2016-2017 school year, the state’s complaints totaled the combined numbers of California, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida, the six states that are most comparable to New York in terms of size, demographics, and special education delivery issues.  Most alarmingly, though, between the 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 school years, New York City has experienced a 51% increase in the number of complaints filed, with the average number of matters seen per day growing from 55 to 122 and the average case length similarly growing from 149 days to 225.  In stark contrast, the number of hearing officers and hearing rooms for these cases have stayed stagnant throughout this period.  It is no surprise why a review of the hearing system was announced on January 24, 2018 by Assistant Commissioner Christopher Suriano (on file with the New York State Education Department).

The recently released report aligns with New York State Education Department (SED) and Assistant Commissioner Suriano’s review plan, focusing on four key areas that would help better understand the functioning of the hearing system (i.e., the New York City Impartial hearing Office, or NYCIHO).  These areas were: (1) the assignment of hearings to Impartial Hearing Officers (IHOs); (2) the payment structure for IHOs; (3) the specific assistance provided to IHOs by NYCIHO; and (4) the observation, availability, and suitability of hearing room spaces.  In short, the reviewer concludes that certain extant practices (see the original report for details) may ultimately incentivize delays and reductions in the quality of legal proceedings.

Among others, recommendations include (1) initiating a plan to revise the IHO appointment process to ensure the availability of hearing officers prior to their appointments, rather than after, and to subsequently limit recusals to personal or professional interests that would conflict with their objectivity; (2) adopting a policy that compensates IHOs for all prehearing, hearing, and post-hearing activities that are consistent with appropriate, standard legal and best practices; and (3) expanding the number of hearing rooms and private spaces for parents and their attorneys, improving their ventilation and temperature control, sound proofing, and access to amenities like printers.

Quoting President Kennedy’s warning about the costliness of long-term inaction, Merced finishes with “[t]o this reviewer, there is no doubt: the time for decisive action is now,” for, according to him, SED will be measured not by what it learns from the report, but by what actions it takes moving forward.  We at The Law Office of Steven Alizio are hopeful that administrators will heed the call.  In the meantime, we will continue to fight to ensure our clients’ right to due process is respected.

 

 

Autism and Effective Behavioral Treatments: Don’t Medicate, Educate!

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By Ilana Slaff, MD

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ilana Slaff is a psychiatrist specializing in autism spectrum disorders.  She completed an autism research fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, has lectured internationally about diagnosing and treating autism, and has testified at public hearings before the FDA and other bodies.  She is the author of Don't Medicate—Educate!: One Family, Three Cases of Autism, Safe Treatment for Dangerous Behavior, a book that chronicles her own experiences as the sister and mother of people with autism and ways to determine effective treatment.  We would like to thank Dr. Slaff for contributing this guest content to our blog!  If you would like to submit a guest blog post related to students with disabilities, please let us know.

For students with autism, an appropriate functional behavior assessment (FBA) can be the key to their success in school and in life.  I have seen this play out in my own family through my identical twin brothers and daughter with autism.  My brother, Matthew, and my daughter, Talia, received applied behavior analysis (ABA) and have not needed medication.  In the case of my other brother, Stuart, our family unfortunately could not obtain funding for effective treatment.  As a result, instead of being provided with treatment such as ABA, Stuart was prescribed twenty medications at once, mostly psychiatric or to manage side effects.  

To be useful, an FBA needs to examine the antecedents and consequences of a behavior to find out why the behavior is occurring.  Different behaviors can have different functions and each FBA needs to examine behaviors separately.  For example, an aggressive behavior may be to simply avoid performing a task whereas self-injury may be to both avoid tasks and to provide self-stimulation. 

Unfortunately, school districts often lump all of a student’s behaviors together, regardless of their different functions.  A quality FBA, however, will look at each behavior individually, thereby determining the plan necessary for the student to improve without the use of medication.  For instance, in the past Matthew and Talia each frequently exhibited dangerous behaviors—in both cases, the frequency and intensity of those behaviors have substantially decreased without medication.

Prior to starting his ABA program, Matthew required surgery due to his head banging and was in the hospital for more than five months.  He also often engaged in self-injury and aggression.  Since beginning his program, he is currently on seven positive behavior contracts—when not exhibiting problem behaviors, such as head banging or aggression, for specified periods of time, he earns breaks and access to preferred activities and he loves earning his preferred reinforcers.  As a child, my family had to often cancel trips due to his behaviors, and while in the hospital he certainly could not go anywhere.  After starting his ABA program almost thirty years ago, however, he has been off medications, successfully visited Niagara Falls with my mother and accompanied by school staff, and now has a paid job at his program. 

For over 11 years, Talia has attended a school that provides intensive, one-to-one ABA instruction.  The intensive ABA program has helped with her aggression, pica, mouthing objects and food stealing.  Moreover, Talia’s school has an effective behavior intervention plan (BIP) in place.  Talia has benefitted from differential reinforcement of other behaviors (as has Matthew) and from an interruption procedure.  After going an average of five minutes without any of the above behaviors, Talia earns a token on her board.  Tokens are objects such as pennies, stickers or checkers that can be placed on a board for desired behaviors, and after earning a previously specified number of them, the tokens can be exchanged for preferred items.  After earning nine tokens, Talia can exchange them for a preferred reinforcer.  If she engages in a problem behavior, there is a procedure called response cost where she loses her tokens and has to start earning them again.  She has learned to stay seated for longer periods of time and can participate more fully when in the community, such as at a restaurant.

Unfortunately, Talia’s case isn’t the norm.  Many school districts often have a hard time providing consistent individualized intensive BIPs due to a lack of training and supervision.  For example, some individuals will respond to token boards, earning preferred items after a previously specified number of tokens, but may require variable reinforcement where the time intervals for earning tokens changes.  Some individuals are not ready for token boards and need the preferred item itself after not exhibiting a behavior in order to be effective.  Schools will sometimes request that families medicate their children without first implementing an appropriate BIP (which is particularly troubling given that school districts are not qualified to prescribe medication, and a recommendation for medication cannot be legally included on a student’s individualized education program).

But medication use in unnecessary circumstances can have untoward and even dangerous side effects.      

My brother Stuart, for whom we could not obtain funding for ABA, has unfortunately been repeatedly hospitalized for his behaviors, often sleeps throughout the daytime, and has had life-threatening side effects from his medications which required hospital visits.  Individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities may also be more susceptible to certain side effects such as seizures and diabetes.  Individuals with limited communication skills may not be able to express their side effects, resulting in them being detected only when life-threatening.  Altered pain sensitivity may also prevent these individuals from realizing they are experiencing a side effect until it is too late. 

We must make sure children are at a placement which can adequately treat their problem behaviors as well as address their academics.  While there is a place for psychiatric medication, medication needs to benefit the child and not the placement.  Medication should never replace education.

Disclaimer: Guest blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of The Law Office of Steven Alizio, PLLC.

Children’s Mental Health Leader Spotlight: Emma Stone

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Actress Emma Stone is frequently in the news, whether for starring in Easy A, winning best actress for La La Land, or for her new Netflix series Maniac.  But this week, she made headlines for something completely different: she is the newest board member of the Child Mind Institute, a national organization that provides resources and support to children with mental health and learning disorders (as well as a sponsor of our upcoming 2nd Annual Know Your Rights conference).

So what’s the connection?  In the past few years, Stone has often spoken publicly about her experiences with anxiety in order to try to reduce the stigma that often comes along with mental health issues.  In a video for the Child Mind Institute’s #MyYoungerSelf campaign, she wanted to make sure children know that they are not alone.  “Everyone experiences a version of anxiety or worry in their lives, and maybe we go through it in a different or more intense way for longer periods of time, but it’s not—there’s nothing wrong with you,” she said in the video.

Stone traces her anxiety back to when she was about seven years old, according to an interview in Rolling Stone.  She says in the interview: “When I was about seven, I was convinced the house was burning down.  I could sense it.  Not a hallucination, just a tightening in my chest, feeling I couldn’t breathe, like the world was going to end.  There were some flare-ups like that, but my anxiety was constant.  I would ask my mom a hundred times how the day was gonna lay out.  What time was she gonna drop me off?  Where was she gonna be?  What would happen at lunch?  Feeling nauseous.  At a certain point, I couldn’t go to friends’ houses anymore—I could barely get out the door to school.”

But Stone said seeing a therapist helped her a lot, as did improv and acting, when you have to be present in the moment rather than worrying about the future.  She also drew a book for herself to visualize what happens when she listens to her anxiety rather than continuing to go about her day: “I drew a little green monster on my shoulder that speaks to me in my ear and tells me all these things that aren’t true.  And every time I listen to it, it grows bigger.  If I listen to it enough, it crushes me.  But if I turn my head and keep doing what I’m doing—let it speak to me, but don’t give it the credit it needs—then it shrinks down and fades away,” she told Rolling Stone.

While Stone still panics sometimes, she continues to manage her anxiety with coping mechanisms that work for her, such as therapy and meditation.  She also tries to keep conversations about anxiety out in the open, she said on a panel with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute.  Upon announcement of her role on the board of directors, she said she is proud to join a “stigma-shattering” organization and “be of service to children and teens across the nation with mental health or learning disorders.”

If your child struggles with anxiety or other disorders, check out some of the Child Mind Institute’s free resources.

Cheers to a New Year!

As 2018 comes to a close, we want to reflect upon—and thank all our clients and supporters for—the successes of the past year.  We're also excited about what 2019 has in store!

LOOKING BACK AT 2018

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This year, we have:

  • worked to secure appropriate educational evaluations, services, and placements for dozens of students with disabilities;

  • hosted our first annual Know Your Rights Conference at Columbia Law School (cosponsored by Columbia Law School's Education Law and Policy Society, and INCLUDEnyc);

  • worked with the ARISE coalition and others to obtain increased funding for accessibility improvements in NYC school buildings;

  • conducted trainings in—and made presentations on—special education law topics to parents, lawyers, social workers, neuropsychologists, educators, and other professionals throughout New York State;

  • published guides to developing IEPs and 504 Plans; and

  • most importantly of all, continued to learn from and work with dedicated parents, students, and educational and related service providers across New York City.

LOOKING FORWARD TO 2019

We also look forward to more great things to come in 2019, including achieving more victories for our clients and continuing to provide information and resources to parents and educational and related service providers throughout the state.  Check out our upcoming events page to stay up to date with our activities, including tabling at the INCLUDEnyc fair in January!

And always remember to check out our resources page or contact us if you have any questions!

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Executive Function Skills: A Foundation for Success at School & Beyond

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By Brittany Peterson and Jackie Stachel, Executive Function coaches at Beyond BookSmart

Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Beyond BookSmart for contributing this guest content to our blog!  If you would like to submit a guest blog post related to students with disabilities, please let us know.

Imagine a builder getting started on a new home.  Maybe he’s behind schedule.  There’s pressure from the owners.  He knows that the foundation has to go in before he can build but maybe he can find a way to get back on schedule by modifying his approachHe digs a shallow hole and saves a whole two days there.  He calls up another contractor and gets a rush pour on the foundation.  He saves a day by getting started while the cement is still curing—it seemed mostly dry, so that’s fine, right?  He starts putting up that house, but guess what?  At every turn, he sees the problems he has caused by neglecting a proper foundation.  Walls aren’t straight, doors slip out of alignment, and the cracks in the inadequately dried cement invite a torrent of water into the basement every time it rains.  All because he didn’t take the time and effort to build a solid foundation.

What does this scenario have to do with your child’s school performance? (Stick with us here…)

Photo by  Santi Vedrí  on Unsplash

Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Before a student can ace that algebra test, master that 3rd declension in Latin, or complete a semester-long history project, they need to have a solid foundation of skills that help them to be productive.  They need to learn how to manage themselves: be organized, initiate tasks, complete tasks, plan out their work, manage their time, and try to keep cool when the going gets tough (and it always gets tough!).  These are executive function skills—the ones that help a student function like an executive and be the boss of their own life.  And school is a student’s job, right? Students need excellent executive function skills to do well at their jobs.  And just like the unfortunate builder in our opening scene, nothing seems to work right when the foundation is weak.

Symptoms of Weak Executive Function Skills

Without good executive function skills, we can think of these examples as symptoms of a shaky foundation:

1) A student who can talk up a storm about Renaissance armor but can’t get a word on the page for a 10-page research paper.

    Foundational skills needed: Task initiation, planning, organization

2) A student who’s in such a last-minute panic over a project that the whole house turns into full-on crisis mode.  (There may be tears...there may be raised voices.  We're not naming names here.)

    Foundational skills needed: Time management, planning and prioritizing, emotion regulation

3) A student who’s got pencils in his sock drawer, socks in his locker, and overdue homework scrunched in the recesses of his backpack.

    Foundational skill needed: Organization

Students who have a wobbly foundation in executive function skills may have trouble reaching their true academic potential; in essence, they are always making quick temporary repairs to their shaky foundation by asking for extensions on assignments or begging for bailouts from parents

Parents often find themselves faced with a dilemma of either constantly helping their children make these "quick fixes" or watching them flounder and struggle.  The real solution is for students to learn the skills that help them be productive and organized.

That foundation helps students build a successful outcome at school and beyond.

Disclaimer: Guest blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of The Law Office of Steven Alizio, PLLC.

Chancellor’s Capital Budget Proposal Takes Important Step for Accessibility

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NYC Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor Richard Carranza took an important step last week to make public schools more inclusive for students with disabilities by proposing an additional $750 million over the next five years to make at least a third of schools in each public school district fully accessible.  The announcement is a vital step in creating inclusive public schools for students with disabilities so that they can fully enjoy all the resources the school system has to offer. 

The proposal echoes the funding amount that Advocates for Children suggested in a report last month, “Access Denied,” and responds to persistent advocacy from groups like the ARISE coalition (of which The Law Office of Steven Alizio, PLLC is a proud member) that urged the DOE to include funding in this plan to meet accessibility goals.  The Access Denied report documented how only about 20 percent of schools across the NYC system are fully accessible to students with disabilities.  Other schools that are partially accessible may have certain areas that are off-limits to students with disabilities; for instance, a school may have an accessible first floor but no accessible way to get upstairs.  

Carranza’s proposal is the first step in the capital plan process, which happens every five years.  The current proposal lays out all of the new construction and building improvements the DOE wants to fund for fiscal years 2020 to 2024, and proposes spending $17 billion in total.

Across the city, more than 200 NYC school buildings are more than 100 years old, which means the city would have to demolish and rebuild many of them to make them fully accessible, the DOE told Chalkbeat recently.  For that reason, the capital plan focuses its spending on bringing partially accessible schools up to fully accessible standards rather than prioritizing schools that are not accessible at all.  According to Chalkbeat, the DOE said that these improvements will range from “‘really easy fixes,’ such as adding ramps for wheelchairs, to ‘very big overhaul projects,’ such as building access to a second-floor gym.”

In addition to improvements in building accessibility, the total capital budget proposal of $17 billion includes plans for more permanent classroom space—although this will not necessarily mean smaller class sizes—air conditioning, and technological improvements, all of which could benefit students with disabilities by increasing comfort and access to learning materials in diverse formats, depending on how the school system implements those improvements.

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As Advocates for Children said in response to the capital plan announcement, the increased accessibility will “literally open the doors” for students with disabilities.  But we hope that the DOE does not stop there.  Having only a third of schools in each district accessible can still impose hard limits on where students with disabilities can learn, what school events parents with disabilities can attend, or where teachers with disabilities can teach.  There is no guarantee that a student’s zoned school, or the one with academic programs in which they are interested, will be accessible or close enough to be feasible, particularly given the busing issues that plagued the school system earlier this year.

According to “Access Denied,” even District 75 programs, which are meant to specifically serve students with disabilities who require more intensive services than other schools can provide, are sometimes housed in less than fully accessible buildings. 

All this does not even mention, of course, the education that students get once they are physically able to access the school building.  Based on the newest data from the DOE, nearly 40,000 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) did not get some or all of the services they were mandated to receive in the 2017-2018 school year.  A number of news outlets also reported earlier this year on systemic issues with IEP services and concerns about getting students the therapy services to which they are entitled.

Nonetheless, Carranza’s announcement should provide much hope.  The additional money earmarked for increasing school accessibility will improve the quality of education for countless students across the NYC system and, importantly, shows that advocacy from parents, teachers, and students does make a difference. 

The DOE will gather input from Community Education Councils and other community representatives on the proposed plan through February, and in March will submit a revised plan to the Mayor and City Council for approval, according to the timeline in the plan.  We encourage all those involved with the NYC public school system to make your voice heard throughout this budget process and continue to push for what you think will make the school system the best it can be for all students.

Systemic Problems for Special Education Students

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The New York Times reported last week on T.J., a 12-year-old student with an intellectual disability who the school system has left behind.  T.J. still reads at a first-grade level.  He was not properly diagnosed until recently, and was not getting appropriate services for what he needed, according to his mother. 

Unfortunately, T.J.’s story is not unusual.  Of the some 200,000 students with identified disabilities in the NYC system, the department itself admits that about a quarter of those students did not receive the specialized instruction they need just in 2016-2017 school year—and that was a significant improvement from the year before.  The real number of students not receiving necessary services is likely even higher, as the department’s estimate assumes that all students’ IEPs currently mandate the appropriate services—a big assumption—and leaves out students who may need IEPs but have not gotten them.  On top of that, Spectrum News NY1 recently revealed that the Department of Education is months behind on payments to therapists, and as a result, students are not getting the therapy to which they are entitled.

But we want you to know that you are not alone trying to get your child the services they deserve.  If you feel your child is not getting what he or she needs to succeed, equip yourself to speak up.  Take a look at our resources page to get started. 

Bussing Issues

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The 2018-2019 school year had a rough start with respect to student transportation.  The city's yellow bus company complaint line received nearly 100,000 calls within the first two weeks of school!  The chancellor of NYC schools, Richard Carranza, did not take the complaints lightly.  Carranza fired public schools support services CEO, Eric Goldstein, this past Friday, and has reassigned Goldstein's former supervisor, Elizabeth Rose, to the position of senior school transportation advisor.

If you ever experience school bussing issues, please check out INCLUDEnyc's Tip Sheet.

July is Disability Pride Month

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July is Disability Pride Month in New York City!  Join us as we celebrate individuals with disabilities throughout this month.

On July 15th, you can celebrate Disability Pride by participating in this year’s Disability Pride Parade!  The parade starts in Madison Square Park at 11AM, marches down Broadway and ends in Union Square Park.  There will be a festival in Union Square Park from noon until 3PM.  The theme of this year’s parade is Express Yourself!  Make sure to register today.

Three years ago Mayor Bill de Blasio declared July as “Disability Pride Month,” in honor of the 25th anniversary of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, since its inception, has helped pave the way for those with disabilities to more fully participate in their communities, schools, and the workforce.  De Blasio explained that “By designating July as Disability Pride Month, we are celebrating and commending the fierce advocacy of those who have fought for equal rights for decades and reaffirming our strong commitment to making New York City the most accessible city in the world.”  The passing of the ADA was a monumental step forward to ensuring equal treatment and access for individuals with disabilities, though there is still much work to be done.

With support from the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), the disability community in New York held the first Disability Pride Parade on July 12, 2015.  Since then, it has become a signature annual event to celebrate disability pride.  Victor Calise, Commissioner of MOPD, explains the mission of NYC’s disability rights movement: “to change the city’s human environment so that everyone has access, and to open people’s minds so that everyone has an opportunity to seek achievement, prosperity and fulfillment.”

Enjoy this month of celebrations! Happy Fourth of July, and Happy Disability Pride!

The Summer Transition: Six Things Parents of students with disabilities Should Consider Doing

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Every child is unique, and no two families function the same way.  Parents should consider which of the ideas below (if any) will help them and their children during the transition from one school year to the next.

1. Talk About the Transition

Transition into summer vacation can be exciting, and anxiety-producing, for many students.  Simply talking with your child about their excitement, the end of the school year, and their plans with friends or wants for the summer months can help to greatly reduce any anxiety associated with the change.

Planning a daily schedule and maintaining a routine is key, especially if your child does not attend a structured summer camp or academy.  If possible, make plans with your child's friends or other familiar faces to encourage the building and maintaining of social relationships, and use it as an opportunity to experience new things - maybe go to the Bronx Zoo, the Central Park Zoo, the New York Botanical GardenBrooklyn Botanical Garden, or the Children's Museum of Manhattan.  If your child slumps into playing video games or watching television or movies for extended periods of time, the transition back to school can be doubly difficult.

2. Understand Your Child's IEP Goals

Before teachers and specialists are out of the building, make sure you have an understanding of your child's IEP goals and how the summer months may impact them.  If you do not, you should consider contacting you child's school - a counselor should be available to walk you through any special considerations, modifications or accommodations that may be pertinent to this time of transition.  It is always helpful to have at least one hard copy of your child's information for reference, if needed, during the summer months.

3. Reach Out to Last Year's and Next Year's Teacher(s)

Communication with your child's teacher(s) can help with transitioning from one school year to the next.  Reach out to your child's current teacher to discuss what has worked well and how to set your child up for success in the coming academic year.  Even a short email can help you to evaluate what techniques and strategies should be maintained in the coming school year to best support your child's academic, social and emotional growth.

It could also be helpful to share your thoughts and concerns with your child's future teacher(s), if you know who they are.  If possible, ask if you and your child could meet their new teacher and visit their classroom.  This may help your child to feel more comfortable with the transition between grade levels, teachers, and/or schools.

4. Prevent the "Summer Slide"

Studies have shown that children, on average, can lose between between 25%-30% of their school-year learning over the summer months.  This is no different for students with special needs.  Summer learning loss can be a serious setback for students who may already be struggling.

If participating in an Extended School Year (ESY) program is an option, take advantage of it!  If your child has the opportunity to attend a summer camp which addresses his or her special needs, consider signing up.  Popular options within New York City are: PreSchool Sensory Summer Camp Program, Tech Kids Unlimited, Camp Green Tree, Theraplay NYC, Big Apple Day Program, Speech Zone, and The Quad Manhattan.

5. Say Thank You

If there was someone who advocated for and helped to support your child in his or her academic, social and emotional growth this year, simply say, “Thank you!”  A “thank you” can go a long way, and modeling how to show thanks is a wonderful lesson for your child to learn before school lets out for summer!

6. Take Time for Yourself

Parenting isn’t easy—especially for parents of children with disabilities.  It’s important for you to relax and recharge.  Find some time this summer to do something for yourself.  Meditate, enjoy the outdoors, or try a new hobby.  Take care of yourself so that you can best take care of your child!