Brighter Beginnings Registration Open

ced_brighter_beginnings_thumbnailAll families can now register for Brighter Beginnings, the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) Community Education program that aims to make the world brighter for parents and children by providing fun early childhood family learning. The upcoming session of Brighter Beginnings will take place from Feb. 2–May 6.

Brighter Beginnings classes invite parents and children to attend together. Weekly classes are divided into time for parent/child education activities and parent time. During parent time, parents discuss various topics with professional educators and other parents. Quality child care is provided during this time, and children will enjoy socialization and activities.

The registration process was updated this year, to allow WDMCS Community Education to serve as many families as possible. Registration is open to in-district and out-of-district families, with registration limited to one class time per family per session. Separate registrations cards are necessary for each session. Families can contact Brighter Beginnings Program Coordinator Sonja LeSher at 515-633-5009 to receive a card or download a card from the Community Education website (

To register, families should complete a registration card and return the card, along with $75 if out-of-district, to WDMCS Community Education, Learning Resource Center, 3550 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines, IA 50265-5556.

For more information, visit the Brighter Beginnings webpage at or contact WDMCS Community Education at 515-633-5001.


Rec’s and Reviews: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”


(Image source:

Everyone is talking about a certain movie this season, and that is “Star Wars: The  Force Awakens.” The seventh episode in the Star Wars universe, “The Force Awakens” is the long-awaited sequel to the three original films. Directed by J.J. Abrams of “LOST” and “Star Trek” fame, the film stays true to the original films not only in theme, but in content. With canonically low levels of graphic violence, language, and sexual content, this is an adventure the whole family can enjoy.

We will skip a major summary to avoid spoilers. Instead, we’ll say that, like the other Star Wars films, this one explores the conflict between good and bad. There are evil characters and group who do evil things, but there are also good characters who do what’s right “because it’s the right thing to do.” New characters mix with original characters, and many of the same themes are revisited and acknowledged.

One of the most lauded positive messages in this film is the cast diversity. The original films have been criticized for being too racially 1-D. This film is definitely a massive step in the right direction, with the main characters including a young woman and people of color.

The film also emphasizes that people can decide to do the right thing and make good choices, no matter what they have been taught. Themes of teamwork, courage, loyalty, and friendship also abound. Like the other “Star Wars” films, the plot centers on the balance between good and evil, with good being presented as the right (or “light”) way to go.

Because of the good vs. evil theme, there are acts of evil in the film. The characters are at war, and battles, lightsaber duels, and explosions are prevalent. Even with all the action, blood and gore are relatively absent, as are language and sexual content.

“The Force Awakens” is a “Star Wars” film. If you have seen the other films, it is likely you know what you are getting yourself into. Families can watch one of the previous films at home to see how kids handle it, but like its predecessors, this is likely a film the entire family can enjoy.

On Common Sense Media, parents and kids agree that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is suitable for ages 10 and older. The film is rated PG-13. For more detailed reviews, visit:

Rec’s and Reviews: Talking to Kids About Tragedy

hands-circleDue to recent tragedies, advice on talking to children about terror and sadness has been in high demand. Parents and guardians may find it difficult to comprehend the situations themselves, much less talk about it with their kids. The discussion is important, though, especially for older kids who will start to see things on social media and in the news. Even younger children may wander into the room when the news is on or overhear things and have questions.

With that in mind, we have compiled seven tips from several articles and resources that may help you navigate these difficult conversations.

1. Keep age in mind.
Many articles we came across split their tips into sections by age. A discussion with an elementary student will be notably different from one with a high school student; young children may need to express themselves through play or art instead of talking. In the end, you know your child and what they are ready for best.

2. Ask questions.
Many experts suggest asking your children what they already know, if anything. With younger children, this can help you determine if you need to have the conversation at all. For older children, it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions back and express their feelings.

3. Create a safe space.
The best way to make them feel safe during these situations is to support them — take their feelings and fears seriously instead of dismissing them. That said, it never hurts to remind kids you love them and give them an extra hug.

4. Monitor media consumption.
Another part of creating a safe space can be monitoring what your kids are seeing. You may not be able to completely shut down the media machine for older kids, but it is okay to keep young ones away from the disturbing images often on the news. Make sure to redirect them calmly. Panicking and other dramatic reactions can create more anxiety and more of an impression.

5. Be honest and accurate.
Children often know if you are not telling the full truth, even if it is to protect them. This can send the message that they should be afraid. To reassure them, be direct, but again — keep age in mind. Elementary-aged kids may not need to know every detail, while older students can use help sorting through the information they are finding.

6. Correct misconceptions.
Keep your kids grounded in reality. Do not exaggerate or blow things out of proportion, and don’t let them do it either. It can also be a teachable moment. If they are beginning to conflate terrorists with larger groups, have a calm talk about prejudice and diversity.

7. Lead by example.
Focus on hope and peace. Remind them that most of the people in the world are good. Share your feelings with them as well. Remind them to “look for the helpers,” in the words of Mr. Rogers. If you want, help them take action by donating or volunteering their time. Let your kids know it is okay to feel upset, but also empower them to make the world better.


discussion1Articles on this topic have become common in recent weeks, as more tragedies are brought into the public eye, but these tips can apply to any sad or scary event in your child’s life. Here are the resources we referenced for the tips above:


TIME: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Attacks in Paris
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Talking to Children About Terrorism and War
The Washington Post: When terror strikes, here’s what you should tell children
The Huffington Post UK: How To Talk To Children About Terrorism
FOX News: Paris Terror Attacks: Talking to children about terrorism
911 Memorial: Talking to Your Children About 9/11
Savvy Psychologist (Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.) from How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism and Violence


Here are some other articles that might be valuable, but are more personal or based on the authors’ experiences and opinions:

  • The New York Times: How to Talk to Children About Terrorism (opinion)
    • This op-ed was written by Pamela Druckerman, author of “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” She and her family live six minutes away from Le Bataclan, a major site in the Paris terror attacks. It also includes a video featuring “Le Petit Quotidien,” a French children’s newspaper that “refuses to sugarcoat the horror of the Paris attacks.”
  • The Daily Beast: How to Talk to Your Kids About ISIS (essay)
    • An older article, closer to the date of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, this piece covers the author’s personal experience, but includes strong examples of options, from what the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. does with her children to explaining terror to kids with Batman’s help.
  • The Telegraph: Paris attacks: How to explain the horror to children (column)
    • This column includes advice from Gemma Allen, a senior bereavement counsellor from Britain’s leading charity for bereaved children, who writes about her personal experience discussing the attacks with her children.
  • The Guardian: How to talk to your children about the Paris attacks (opinion)
    • This opinion piece is filled with do’s and don’ts for talking about terror with children. It features examples from the BBC, French newspapers, and the “Daily Beast” article above.

Rec’s and Reviews: “The Color of Us”

Image source:

Image source:

“Brown is brown, right?” asks Lena. Lena’s mother is an artist, and together they discover the beauty in all the skin tones of their friends and family through paint colors and descriptive words.

This popular book by Karen Katz helps children celebrate different skin colors through wonderful illustrations and a touching story. It falls short of truly encouraging diversity and understanding by falling back on tired stereotypes.

“The Color of Us” is a good introductory read for ages 3-6, but we recommend supplementation with other books that dig deeper.

Options include:

  1. “One Green Apple” by Eve Bunting, the story of a Muslim immigrant who goes on a field trip with her class
  2. “Round is a Mooncake” by Roseanne Thong, which follows a Chinese-American girl as she discovers culture through shapes
  3. “The Sneetches and Other Stories” by Dr. Seuss, a classic story that teaches about tolerance
  4. “Two Mrs. Gibsons” by Toyomi Igus, about a girl with a Japanese mother and an African-American grandmother
  5. “Ramadan Moon” by Na’ima Robert, which helps explain the wonder of Ramadan to people from all cultures
  6. “The Sandwich Swap” by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Kelly DiPucchio, a story of two friends who are unfamiliar with foods from each other’s cultures
  7. “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King, a strong and clear introduction to discussions about the civil rights movement
(written with contributions from Holly Burns, Preschool Programs Coordinator)

Mythbusting Monday: National School Bus Safety Week

Pre teen boy getting on school busWDMCS bus drivers safely transport about 3,600 students each day. Each school year, they drive more than 700,000 miles. To celebrate these drivers and National School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 19-23, we decided to bust some myths about buses and the West Des Moines Community Schools Transportation Department.

  • Myth: School buses are yellow to make them more visible.
    • This myth is TRUE.
    • School buses must, by law, be painted “National School Bus Glossy Yellow.” The color was originally chosen in 1939, during a conference that established national standards for school buses and school bus safety. It was the easiest color to see, especially in the hours when buses are on the road. Originally called “National School Bus Chrome,” the yellow is also easy to see in peripheral vision.
  • Myth: School buses are not safe without seat belts.
    • This myth is FALSE.
    • School buses are designed as the safest way to transport children. The design, and the way buses protect passengers, is totally different from a car’s design. School buses use what is called “passive restraint.” This means that all a child must do to be protected is remain seated.
    • The American School Bus Council explains it this way: “School bus passengers are protected like eggs in a carton — compartmentalized, and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container.” The entire bus is designed to be safe and protect all the passengers at once, so seat belts can be more of a hazard or distraction than a safety measure.
  • Myth: Other drivers must stop when school bus lights flash.
    • This myth is TRUE.
    • The first step to knowing what to do when you meet a bus on the road is understanding what the bus and its lights are telling you. This content is a simple breakdown of Iowa code 321.372, known as “Keep Aware Driving — Youth Need School Safety Act.”
    • What do the lights mean?
      • The yellow lights are a warning; the red lights should be treated as a stop light. Iowa law says a bus driver must turn on the yellow/amber flashing lights before they stop. They must turn on the yellow lights within specific distances, depending on speed limits in the area.
      • The driver turns on the red flashing lights when they have brought the bus to a full stop. They will also extend the stop arm. This is the point when students will enter or exit the bus.
    • What should a driver do?
      • If you meet a bus with flashing yellow lights (a warning), slow to 20 mph or less. Bring your vehicle to a complete stop when the red lights flash and the stop arm extends. Proceed with caution only after the stop arm is retracted.
      • NEVER try to “beat the bus.” Drivers must not pass school buses when the red or yellow lights are flashing. Bring vehicles to a complete stop 15 feet or more away from the bus.
Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a two- or three-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a two- or three-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

There is one exception to these rules: If you meet a bus on a street where there are two or more lanes in each direction, you do not need to stop if you are traveling in the opposite direction from the bus.

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a four-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a four-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Here are some more quick reminders for drivers and for students.

American School Bus Council
National Education Association
Mental Floss
Iowa Legislation: Code 321.372
Iowa Department of Transportation

Rec’s and Reviews: “Inside Out”

(The “Inside Out” poster from

(The “Inside Out” poster from

Disney•Pixar’s newest film, “Inside Out,” has been getting huge amounts of positive buzz. Critics and viewers alike are raving about the daring film. The endless positive reviews seems to indicate that risk has led to reward. Sitting in the audience tells a different story. Disney•Pixar has created a wonderful film, but it has also failed to connect with some of its main fans: children.

“Inside Out” centers on 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), but it spends most of its time with her emotions. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling) live together inside Riley’s mind in “Headquarters.” They can see what Riley sees and use a control panel to influence her actions. The film does an excellent job of illustrating Riley’s psychology in a way that is beautiful and relatively accurate. The director invited well-known psychologist and emotions expert Paul Ekman to work with the crew, and it shows.

The film follows Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) as they move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The family is close and fun-loving, but it is a stressful move. Early on, Riley’s mom praises her for staying upbeat, and the emotions decide they will do all they can to keep Riley acting happy. Joy tries to stop Sadness from having any influence, but it’s like Sadness cannot help herself, accidentally tinging memories with unhappiness and influencing Riley’s reactions.

Adults and older children will recognize this behavior as compartmentalization. It is children who understand the basic emotions, but not the more complicated ones Riley is developing, who may be troubled by the film. It was hard for some children in the theater to understand the film’s appeal. They felt with Riley, and like her, they had trouble processing their emotions. Adults could appreciate the sadness, the subtle humor, and the genius illustration of the concepts. Some kids just felt sad, and a little lost — much like the main character.

Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness at the control panel. (Image source:

Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness at the control panel. (Image source:

The youngest children probably will not understand the film’s plot, but they can still enjoy its transcendent music and animation. The music was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also scored Disney•Pixar’s “Up.” Like the music from “Up,” the “Inside Out” soundtrack can tell the entire story on its own, but never distracts or detracts from the rest of the movie. The movie is also visually captivating but not overwhelming, thanks to its foundation in basics like color, shape, and texture.

The brilliance of “Inside Out” starts with its broad concept and ends with its intricate execution. There are only a few things that parents might find objectionable for young children — some scary moments and bad decisions Riley makes. Overall, the film is beautiful, thoughtful, and artfully crafted. It is one the family should see together and discuss together afterward. At its most basic, this story is about emotional turmoil, and the audience feels every minute of it. Adults are more able to deal with complex emotions, but young viewers may need help to understand Riley’s emotions and their own. For more detailed reviews and information, visit:

Exciting School Start

Written by Shahna Janssen, Director of Community Education

back_to_schoolI have run into many WDMCS families this summer and when I’ve asked how their summer is going, I’ve always heard the same answer, “Fast!”  And  I couldn’t agree more!  Then, when I asked my kids if they were ready for school to start again, I got an enthusiastic, “Yes!”  I really wasn’t expecting that, but it was very good to hear. It reminded me of how fortunate we are to be part of the West Des Moines Community School District.  We have great schools, outstanding teachers, and strong and capable leaders.  All of that has translated into a wonderful school experience for my two kids and thousands of others students. I’m excited by the learning and growth I’ve seen in them each year, and apparently they are too.  I hope that your school year gets off to a fantastic start!

Sue Roberts the 2012-3 Susan Asklof Enthusiasm Awardee


Sue Roberts at the WDMCS Welcom Back accepting the Susan Asklof Enthusiasm Award.

The 2012-13 Susan Asklof Enthusiasm Award was presented to Sue Roberts at the West Des Moines Community School District’s welcome back celebration on Monday, August 19. Sue an associate at Western Hills Elementary School.

WDMCS Community Education began giving this award in memory of Susan Asklof, the district’s wellness supervisor from 1986-1991. Susan helped many students and staff understand the importance and reward of a healthy lifestyle. The recipient of this award is an employee who exemplifies her amazing qualities: Lives Life Fully, Loves Unconditionally, Learns with Joy, Laughs Heartily, and Leaves a Legacy.

Here is excerpt from Susan’s nomination form written by one of her peers.

“It is said that laughter is the best medicine. It is this medicine that Sue brings with her to work each day.  Sue uses her time with the students to share a smile and laugh. She sends a message that ‘we can do this together.  Sue’s positive attitude is evident in her smiles along the way as she shares with her students the joy in their successes and laugh together as they learn something new each day.”

Gabe Carlson, WDMCS Wellness Director spoke about Susan and the amazing life she lived.

The Greatest Joy of My Life

written by Shahna Janssen, Director of Community Education

Kid's mothers day drawingMother’s Day is right around the corner and I can only feel grateful for the wonderful mother that I was blessed with, and for the opportunity to be a mother myself.  I have found motherhood to be incredibly rewarding and equally challenging. My experiences as a mom have been both fulfilling and humbling.

I remember the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. I was awestruck by this new little person and an overwhelming sense of responsibility that came with him. I really didn’t know what to do or where to begin. He began to cry and I began to panic. I’d done everything that I could think of, but nothing was working….so I just started to cry too, and my husband was struck with fear.  In a moment of clarity, I called my mom, because she would know just what to do. And she did! The answer to all my prayers (at that moment) was a miraculous little invention called a pacifier. J

And so it goes. I didn’t realize it then, but that would be the first of many moments when I would question myself and my abilities as a mom. As my kids continue to grow, they continue to encounter circumstances that I’m not sure how to deal with (and we haven’t even approached the teen years yet).  I quickly figured out that “parenting” was so much easier before I’d actually had kids! That was when I could observe other people’s missteps and vow that that I would do things differently and that naturally, my kids would never misbehave in public. Yes, that was a lovely and short-lived fairy tale.

But, I’ve actually found the reality of motherhood to be even better. It is perfectly imperfect.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I’ll make many more. I’ve even done and said some of the things I vowed I never would. However, the things I’m learning from my kids through this journey are pretty incredible. Being their mom is molding me into a better human being. Motherhood is, without question, the greatest joy of my life.

Wishing you great joy, along with a little peace and relaxation, this Mother’s Day!

Still Learning

Written by Shahna Janssen, Director of Community Education

I always thought of myself as a really good student. I was well behaved (most of the time), took my assignments seriously, and got good grades.  But in hindsight, I also completely missed the point!

I missed the point because my goal as a student was to get an A, but it was never actually about learning.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really value learning, or learn how to learn until I was an adult, and until I stopped getting grades.

Today I’m energized by the learning process,  and I am blessed to be part of a learning organization. My role as the Director of Community Education gives me the opportunity to learn about many amazing things in our community and to learn from equally amazing people in WDMCS and our community at-large. I’m looking forward to sharing glimpses of that learning through this blog. While I regret that I  didn’t value learning earlier in my life, I’ve LEARNED that it is better late than never!