How to stay in the information loop

circular image of question marks around the word knowledge Often parents don’t hear about major developments in education or public policy that impact our children until long after the chance to influence those decisions has passed. A large part of being an effective advocate for your child, or children in general, is to keep up with what is going on at the school, local, state and national levels.

School news:  Attending PTO/PTA meetings, and reading the school newsletter and other notices, can help you stay on top of things that are happening at your child’s school. Parents may have a voice in deciding how certain funds are to be spent, changes to school building policies, or even where the 5th graders will go for their optional spring field trip.

School District: Most school system websites have a “News” section where all sort of events, new developments, school board meetings, policy changes and other announcements are featured. This is a place where you can find out about the school calendar for next year as soon as it has been decided, central office staff changes, new programs and initiatives, major accomplishments, etc. If you visit the website at least once a month, you will have a greater understanding of what is going on and how things work within your local school system.

State and local public policy in North Carolina:

NC Partners has an email newsletter with information on events, State Board of Education meetings and actions, and other issues affecting North Carolina’s public schools. For more information or to subscribe, please visit the website.

NC Child is a broad-based advocacy group that describes itself as “The voice for North Carolina’s children.” They focus on the health, safety, education and and economic well-being of all children in the state by engaging communities and informing stakeholders and decision-makers. NC Child distributes InfoNet, a free e-news service that provides information about state and local legislation and public policies, stories of national interest, relevant newspaper opinion pieces, as well as resources for parents and advocates.

Around the Nation:

The U.S. Department of Education has great information on it’s website about Early Learning, K-12 Educational Reforms, Family and Community Engagement, various education-related laws and guidance, Financial Aid for Post-Secondary Education and other topics. You can also sign up for email updates.

SmartBrief is a digital media company that gathers information on a wide array of subjects and offers more than 20 different newsletters focused on some aspect of education. The SmartBrief on Special Education contains articles on new developments, research findings, promising practices, training opportunities and noteworthy events from across the nation.

Disability Scoop describes itself as the “Nation’s premier source of developmental disability news.” They scour the headlines and other sources for information on “issues that matter to the developmental disabilities community.” These issues include, but are not limited to education, health, civil rights, legislation and real life success stories.

By signing up for any of these newsletters, information and news comes to you without the time and energy it takes to constantly search the web. Knowing what is going on in your community, state or in our nation will help you better understand how the pieces of the puzzle fit together and how our systems work. This information can also give you ideas to bring to the table and advance notice of actions that you can take in order to influence decisions before they are made. Remember, knowledge is power!

Consider the whole child when disciplining students with disabilities at school

Children with disabilities may get into trouble every now and again, just like other children. When it comes to the discipline of students who have disabilities, public schools have a special obligation to consider the possible role of the child’s disability. There are federal and state laws that provide guidance in this area.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any program that receives any federal funds from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified” individual based on their disability, when it comes to accessing, participating in, or benefiting from that program. If a student is punished for a behavior that is caused by his disability, that could be considered discrimination.  In order to be sure that such discrimination does not happen, schools should take a look at any possible connection between the behavior in question and the student’s disability when making decisions about discipline. Many school systems use a process that is similar to Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) that is described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA ’04). Each school system must develop its own Section 504 policy so you would need to check with your local school system to learn the details about how the discipline of students with disabilities is handled.

IDEA ’04 and state special education laws, allow school officials to consider the discipline of students who receive special education services on a case-by-case basis. This allows them to consider things like the nature of the child’s disability, the functioning level of the child, the intent of the behavior and other relevant factors. This flexibility is there to help make sure that schools respond to violations of the code of student conduct in an appropriate way, especially when a change in placement is being considered.

If a decision is made to change the placement of a child with a disability (as defined by IDEA), the school must hold an MDR meeting to determine whether the behavior in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s disability. The group, which includes the parent,  a representative of the school district, and relevant members of the child’s IEP team, will also consider whether the behavior or violation was the direct result of a failure to properly implement the child’s IEP.  If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, then the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability and the child is returned to his or her previous placement and provided with appropriate positive behavior intervention and supports.

Sometimes the team that conducts the MDR looks too narrowly at the child’s disability.  They may only consider the child’s category of eligibility for special education services.  Instead, the team should review all relevant information in the child’s special education record, including the child’s IEP, along with teacher observations and any relevant information provided by the parents. As an example, a child’s category of eligibility could be specific learning disability, but consideration of the child’s “disability” should also include possible impacts of  ADHD and anxiety disorder diagnoses. The team should look at the whole child as they make a decision about whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability, just as they should consider the whole child when determining eligibility for special education, or when developing the IEP.

It’s Transition Fair time!

If you are the parent of teen-aged child who receives special education services, you have probably heard about something called Transition to Adulthood. Basically, schools are required to really think about what should happen in the last few years of school to prepare a student with a disability for their adult life.  Regardless of whether they plan to go straight into the workforce, go to college or get other training, or continue to work on independent living skills for a while, there are steps that can be taken to make the transition out of high school a smoother one.

Many school systems offer Transition Fairs to provide an opportunity for students and parents to learn more about various options for adult services, post-secondary education and other community resources, all in one place.  Sometimes the transition fairs will also include information sessions on topics that range from understanding Social Security benefits to job interview skills.  Even if your child has a bit more time before she leaves school, it is always good to know what’s out there and learn what steps you should take, and when to take them.

Unfortunately, some school systems do a better job of getting the word out about transition fairs than others. Some will target certain groups of students and neglect to inform the parents of other students who have IEPs. Students with disabilities who spend most of their time in the general education setting often don’t get notices about a transition fair that may be going on in their community. Spring is the time of year when many of these transition fairs take place.  If you haven’t heard about any in your area, ask your child’s special education teacher, case manager, guidance counselor, or the transition coordinator for your school system.  Even if there are no plans to hold a transition fair this year, your questions may give them the idea to have one next year. It’s a win either way.

You can have influence beyond the IEP Team

As the parent of a child with a disability, your first responsibility is to make sure your child gets the healthcare, support and education that meets his or her needs.  Participating as an active and effective member of your child’s IEP team, and forming good working relationships with the staff at your child’s school are key ways to accomplish this. However, there are decisions that are made on lots of different levels that also can impact your child’s education and opportunity to be fully involved in their community.  Think about how you might be able to influence some of those decisions in a positive way.

  • School Improvement Teams and Parent/Teacher Organization- You can make sure that school building-level decisions take students with disabilities (SWD) into consideration. Decisions about equipment purchases, school activities and even procedures for communicating with parents can make a difference in whether SWD are looked at an equal part of the school community or are overlooked.
  • School district Parent Advisory Boards- Parents have an opportunity to discuss issues, solve problems and do future planning with special education administrators at the same table.
  • Local School Board- They set policies that apply to the whole school district and also approve budgets for how funds will be spent. Most school board meetings provide a time for public input, and Board members can be contacted individually as well. You can express an opinion, point out a problem, or even ask for their assistance.
  • Task Forces- From time to time school systems or other governmental entities will create a task force to address a particular issue. These groups are usually made up of a variety of stakeholders.  Most of the time there is an opportunity for parents or citizens to volunteer to participate on them.
  • State legislators and the State Board of Education make critical decisions about funding, curriculum, staff qualifications, graduation requirements, public preschool programs, discipline rules, and so much more. Join an email list that will allow you to keep up with things that are being proposed, so that you have a chance to offer your input before the decision is a done deal.
  • Get involved with local support and advocacy groups. There is power in numbers and this is also a way to share information about things that may be important to you or your child.

These are just a few examples of ways that you can make your voice heard and make sure that the people with the power to make decision think about how those decisions may impact people who have disabilities. So tune in, look around, ask questions and step up to make a difference in how the system works. Don’t watch things happen. Make things happen!

Second Semester, Second Chance

It’s report card time and time to see how the first half of the school year went. If your child’s report card reflects solid grades and good work habits, some sort of celebration is in order. One of my co-workers learned that her daughter earned a 96 in an advanced math class. She offered to buy ice cream, but her daughter wanted her bedroom painted instead.  Fair enough!

If, on the other hand, you were disappointed in your child’s progress or performance, there is still time to turn things around. You and your child can press the reset button by looking for ways to improve on things that you have been doing. Think about changes that can be made on many possible  levels.

  • If your child has poor sleeping habits, try establishing a bed-time routine that gradually steps down the amount of activity and stimulation in the household. A well-rested brain functions better.
  • If your child wastes time in the evening and then stays up late doing homework, set a firm cutoff time to stop working, shut down the computer and place everything in the backpack (which will “live” in a designated spot in another room).  Then start winding things down toward bedtime. Provide prompts and reminders earlier in the evening to serve as fair warning.                            It may take a couple of incomplete assignments or disappointing test grades to get the real message across. Don’t cave in though, because it is essential that students develop good work habits, including learning how to effectively manage their time, if they are going to be able to sustain their success throughout the school and college years. Showing up for class exhausted and inattentive will eventually take its toll. Throwing together projects at the last minute and cramming for tests will also lead to poorer quality results that your child will take less pride in. I know this first-hand from my experience as person who went through school with undiagnosed ADHD.
  • If your child is overwhelmed by an over-packed schedule that doesn’t leave enough time for schoolwork and “down time,” consider taking a break from one of the activities.  Unless your child is talented enough that a sport or cheerleading scholarship is a real possibility, they might be better off burning the candle from only one end. Keep the activities that give them joy, and  set aside those that are on the schedule just because of habit.
  • If your child has an IEP or Section 504 accommodation plan, review it to see if it adequately addresses her current needs. It might be time to update the accommodations and supports to match performance expectations that tend to get higher each year. Get your child’s input so that any changes are going to be ones that they think will be helpful and will cooperate with.
  • Re-establish lines of communication with teachers and other school staff. If your child will have different classes for the 2nd semester, there may be new teachers who may not be aware of his special needs or the fact that you are a concerned and involved parent who expects to be considered an equal part of your child’s educational team. Set a positive tone and let them know that you are looking for this semester to be better than the last one.
  • Look for any other areas where a change for the better might be possible: diet and nutrition, general health and well-being, mental health, organization (personal and/or household), social skills, etc.  Consult with trusted friends, family and professionals to see if they have any suggestions.

If things are going great, keep doing what you are doing.  If not, try something different that might lead to better results. Remember, there can be no growth without change!

Look beyond the school building for resources

We often have to remind parents of children who receive special education services that it is the school district as a whole that is responsible for providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for their child. They are not limited to the resources within their child’s specific school building. This would seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how often that detail is missed when an IEP team or other school staff are trying to address the needs of a student who has a disability.

School staff will sometimes only think about the personnel that is currently assigned to that school when they are considering instructional strategies, adult-to-child support, equipment and assistive technology, behavioral interventions and supports, etc. Sometimes good ideas are dismissed because “we don’t have the resources for that.” Lack of resources is not a legitimate reason to fail to meet a child’s educational needs, but it is also a reality that resources are not unlimited.

One of the qualifications to serve as the LEA Representative on an IEP team, is for that individual to have knowledge of the resources of the entire school district or Local Education Agency (LEA). The LEA Representaive should be able to tell the team about LEA staff with special expertise who can be brought in as consultants who can provide ideas, training or help create a plan of action. Behavior Specialists and Psychologists can lead the functional behavior assessment (FBA) process and help develop positive behavior support plans. Reading specialist can help identify which reading program might be a better fit for a particular student. Specialists can also help staff better understand a particular disability, how it may impact the child in question, and offer research-based interventions and strategies that have been proven to be effective. Many school systems have staff who can conduct assistive technology assessments and help identify devices or equipment that might be appropriate for a specific child. Other specialist have much to contribute as well.  Somebody just needs to invite them in!

There may also be specialized programs offered within a school system that not everyone knows about. In a worst-case example of that, there was child who received only very limited home bound services for months due to his behavior. The school had told the parent that they had tried “everything” before removing the child from the school.  After the parent sought help from the Parent Training and Information Center, an IEP meeting was held with several Exceptional Children’s Department central office staff members present.  It turned out that the school district had three different alternative education programs that could have provided this child with a full-time education in a less restrictive setting. These programs were not considered because the people in the school building were not aware of them.

Many state education agencies also offer consultants who can be called on for help, often at no cost to the school district. There may be centralized funds that can be used to meet a student’s disability-related needs. There may also be clinicians and programs available within the local community that can help either during or outside of school hours.

The bottom line is that school teams should keep looking and asking questions until they find something that will work for the child.  When they have tried everything in the school building tool box without success, they should go out and get more tools. Giving up or settling for anything less than true FAPE is not an option.

Free Audio Book Resources

Individuals with disabilities that affect their access to print have some free options  for obtaining audio and braille books, magazines and pod casts. The local public library is bound to have a collection of popular audio books that can borrowed at no cost, as long as you have a library card and return the books on time. In many libraries, books can be reserved in advance and/or brought in from another branch so you are not limited to what happens to be on the shelves of that branch on a particular day.  Public libraries often raise money by selling donated books and used ones that they have replaced. It’s a low-cost way to build your home library.

The North Carolina Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has a history that goes back to 1958.  With Federal, State and private funding, it eventually became part of a regional network of libraries operated by the the Library of Congress.  Even though the name of the library has not kept up with current preferred disability language, the library itself has continued to change with the times and now offers materials in a wide variety of accessible formats fr people of all ages.  Individuals must complete an application  and provide documentation of a disability that qualifies them to use the library.   Please visit the website to learn more http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/lbph . If you don’t live in North Carolina, ask for the branch that serves your area.

 

Bookshare is another great resource for people who have print disabilities.  Bookshare is free for qualified U.S. students and schools, thanks to funding from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the U.S. Department of Education. Organizations  and non-students can apply for paid memberships that will give them access to accessible materials through Bookshare. Check out Bookshare at https://www.bookshare.org  to see if you or someone that you know can benefit from what it offers.

Whether you are reading for school, work or pleasure, it’s good to know that there are some free services available to make sure that people with print disabilities have access to the information, ideas and wonderful imagining that is contained in printed text. Read on!

Curriculum modifications can go both ways

In order for many students with disabilities to be educated in the general education setting, some adjustments are required as far as what each particular student will learn or be able to do. The student should not be denied the opportunity to be in classrooms with typical children just because modifications are needed. This concept is part of the IDEA requirement that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment where their needs can be met.

Q: What about children who spend most of their day in an exceptional children’s classroom where their skills are at the top or bottom of the range for that class?

A: The instruction can be modified, as needed, for students within an EC classroom to ensure an appropriate amount of challenge and progress.

The “I” in IEP means that instruction can be individualized to address the unique needs of a student with a disability.  The child’s learning should not be put on hold until lower-functioning classmates catch up.  We expect typical students to make a year’s worth of progress over a year of school. We should also expect that students who have disabilities will make as much progress as they are capable of over the course of each school year.  We would be doing the student a disservice if we settled for “some” progress if the child is capable of much more.

If you are the parent of a child in an EC classroom who you feel is not being challenged, try to get as much information as you can about what is being taught in that class.  Ask whether, or how, the lesson planning and instruction accounts for the fact that the students are probably not all on the same level with any of their skills.  The answer to the question should not be that “there is one curriculum and I have to teach the same things to all of the children.” One size does not fit all, and is not an appropriate approach to special education. Instruction should be differentiated to meet the needs of each individual  child.

In some schools there may be multiple EC classrooms, either self-contained or resource rooms where the kids switch in and out. It is possible for a student at the separate level of service to get instruction from teachers in different rooms.  For example, a child may get most of her instruction from a primary EC teacher, but go work with another EC teacher in a subject area where she has skills that are much higher than her classmates. On the flip side, a child can be assigned primarily to one classroom, and also go to another classroom for instruction at an appropriate, but lower level of difficulty.

Flexibility within and between EC classrooms can offer students with significant disabilities the opportunity to benefit from an educational experience that adequately addresses their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

Make sure that your child understands his accommodations

For many students who have disabilities, the accommodations that are provided through their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan are extremely important to their school success. The accommodations are the things that are being done in a different way because of the impacts of the child’s disability.  Accommodations could involve changes in the physical environment, school assignments, how the student participates in school activities, instructional materials, how much time a student is given to complete a test or assignment, additional supports, etc.  The range of possible accommodations is mind-blowing, but they are selected based on the unique needs of each individual student.

young student looks at ipad

Children should be told about their accommodations as soon as they are old enough to understand what they are and why they were chosen for them.  Many parents are not comfortable talking to their child about his or her disability.  They worry that it might negatively impact the child’s self-esteem. This concern suggests that the child is unaware that they have a disability.  Even if the child does not know the name of a “condition” that they may have been diagnosed with, most kids are very aware of the things that they have trouble with.  They know that it’s harder for them to write neatly, read, do math, remember things, see the board, walk fast, speak clearly, and so on. If they do have a diagnosis, learning that there’s a reason for why they struggle with certain things can come as a big relief.  Even if there is no diagnosis or other explanation for why, it is generally helpful to have others at least acknowledge that things are difficult, and that it’s not their fault.

Talk to your child about how each accommodation is expected to help and how it should be implemented.  Explain that sometimes a teacher or other school staff member might not be aware of the accommodations. Talk to him about how to handle situations where an accommodation is not provided. Discuss or role play what your child can do or say to let the adult know that he is supposed to have extra time, be moved into a separate room for a test, etc.  Let your child know that it is also important for him to tell you when accommodations are not followed. You want to be able to address any problems as soon as possible.

Speaking with your child about her accommodations also gives her a chance to tell you about what is, and is not, working for her.  It could be time to take another look at different ways that your child’s needs can be met, and maybe see if another accommodation would be more appropriate at this point.  IEPs and 504 Plans are fluid documents and student input can sometimes make the difference between whether you have a document that looks good on paper, or one that actually works for your child.

Having these conversations, and preparing your child to handle “what if…” situations, can help your child learn how to effectively advocate for himself.  That is an important life skill that he needs to start learning as early as possible.

 

Back to school: Look closely at your child’s class schedule

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

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