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.
Many parents have been hearing scary things about the Common Core State Standards that most states are now using as a foundation for their General Education Program or Standard Course of Study. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are intended raise expectations for what high school graduates will know and be able to do so that they will be better prepared for the demands of our 21st-Century Global Economy. We know that students will still be taught how to read, write and do math, so many parents are wondering what’s so different about the CCSS, and whether they will still be able to help with their child’s education.
This blog will only address some CCSS highlights. However, detailed information about the specific standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics in kindergarten through 12th grade can be found at http://www.corestandards.org. Also, the Council of the Great City Schools has created Parent Roadmaps to Common Core Standards, which are available in both English and Spanish. The parent-friendly roadmaps give parents information about what their child should be learning in English Language Arts and Mathematics at each grade K-8 and during the high school years. They show how the standards connect from one year to the next and also give parents ideas for how they can support their child’s learning at home. You can find the roadmaps at http://www.cgcs.org/Page/328 .
One of the things that you will find throughout the CCSS is a focus on higher-level thinking skills. Instead of just asking students to memorize facts and repeat definitions, the CCSS requires students to actually use increasingly complex information to understand situations, solve problems, analyze, create and evaluate arguments, explore possibilities, make decisions, communicate with others, and collaborate to reach a common goal. Students will also be taught to become independent learners who can find needed information and use technology on their own.
While this may all sound a little intimidating, there are some basic things that parents can do to help their child develop these skills. Here are a few suggestions:
- Expose your child to as many different kind of experiences and people as possible. Even if resources are limited, you can expose your child to other parts of the world, art, music, theatre, nature, history and science by choosing the right shows to watch on television. Visit zoos, museums, historical landmarks as well as state and national parks. These experiences give your child something to connect to when different topics come up at school.
- Build your child’s vocabulary by occasionally using words that they don’t already know or discussing an unfamiliar expression that they may hear in a story, movie or from someone else. Look for opportunities to take things to the next level. For example, go from “dinosaur” to talking about specific species of dinosaurs and what makes a herbivore different from a carnivore.
- Ask lots of “why” questions. Why do certain plants or animals only live in certain places? Why do some animals hibernate during the winter? Why is it a bad idea to start a fire outside on a windy day? Why are there more seashells on the beach first thing in the morning? Why do cars cost more than bicycles? Why did you pick that jacket to wear today? Why do they put food coloring in beverages? The point isn’t to see if they know the answer already, it’s to make them think and communicate their ideas.
- When reading, hearing or watching a story, ask “what if?” something had happened differently at a particular point in the story. How would that have impacted what happened later? Would that have been better or worse? Why?
- Actually talk about why a person shouldn’t believe everything that they hear and under which circumstances some people should be trusted as reliable sources of information. For example, you should be able to trust your doctors to give medical advice within their field of expertise, but is there any reason to take their word on which car to buy?
- Look for ways to use math skills in natural situations like shopping, cooking, working on a project to build something, or deciding how many cans of paint to buy to do a job.
The point is that if parents challenge their kids to think more at home and help find different ways to express those thoughts, it will go a long toward preparing them for the challenges of the common core. Start early and don’t assume that anything is over your child’s head. Children can usually understand, at least the basics of any topic, if its broken down and explained the right way.
Part of the excitement of going back to school is thinking about the fun parts of the school experience. Many children look forward to playing with friends during recess, having lively conversations at lunchtime or on the school bus, and field trips that bring history, art and science up close and personal. Many schools also offer extra-curricular activities that range from sports, music, and drama to special interest or service clubs. It is through these activities that many students form lasting friendships, discover gifts and talents, or gain experiences that help prepare them for future careers.
Students that have disabilities should be encouraged to consider becoming actively involved in all parts of school life. By law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), they should be given an equal opportunity to participate, but sometimes that message is not clearly communicated to the students, or to the adults that make the extra-curricular activities possible. In some schools, notices about club sign-ups, team tryouts or driver’s education courses are not even distributed in the special education classrooms. It’s hard to make a choice when you don’t know what the options are.
School staff may need to be more intentional in their effort to publicize these opportunities throughout the entire student population. Parents can also ask about what’s going on at their child’s school and the process for becoming involved if their child has an interest in a particular activity.
Some students with disabilities may need accommodations, assistive technology or other supports to successfully participate in their chosen extra-curricular activity. They may also need accommodations for some of the non-academic parts of the regular school day. IEP teams and 504 committees sometimes overlook these times when they are discussing the child’s educational needs. In some cases, this amounts to a missed opportunity to enhance the child’s school experience by supporting them through their disability-related challenges, or continue to work on IEP goals in a non-classroom setting. For other children, such an oversight can set them up for avoidable social or behavioral difficulties.
The good news is that IEPs and Section 504 accommodation plans are living documents that can be revised whenever the need to do so arises. Teachers, coaches and other adults also have the freedom to make many accommodations on their own when they identify a need for them. It almost goes without saying that a child may need different types of support for different activities.
The I’m Tyler video http://imtyler.org/index.php/video/ does a powerful job of making the point that students with disabilities are capable of participating in a wide range of activities when the adults around them focus more on what they can do than on what they can’t do. A little effort, imagination and open-mindedness goes a very long way toward giving students with disabilities the chance that they deserve to experience each day as full members of their school and larger communities.
As parents, we are convinced that we know what’s best for our child, or at least what they need. When it comes to school, we may have very strong opinions about how our child learns best, how much structure they need, what kind of teacher they would work well with, what kind of classroom setting would work, or the amount of support that they need. This is especially true for children with disabilities who may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and specially designed instruction to meet their unique needs. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just tell the school what to do?
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately in some cases), that’s not how educational decisions are made. Parents have a voice in developing their child’s IEP, but they do not have the power to control the decisions of the IEP team. The IEP team may decide to agree or disagree with any suggestion that a parent makes. Other decisions, such as school assignment, teacher assignment, curriculum, school bell schedule, and graduation requirements are usually made with no input from parents at all.
It is sometimes difficult to accept decisions that you honestly feel are not in your child’s best interest. But, if you want your child to have a fighting chance to be successful in a less-than-ideal situation, you will need to be careful about the spoken and unspoken messages that you send your child. If she hears you using catastrophic language and talking a lot about how terrible things are going to be at school, it will be very difficult for her to expect to have a good experience.
I worry about children who spend all summer listening to their parent wage battle after battle in a losing effort to overturn some school-related decision. Maybe they wanted their child to be promoted, or maybe they wanted to keep them at the same grade instead of being “pushed through” to the next one. Maybe they wanted to keep their child with the same effective or caring teacher as last year, or maybe they wanted to get away from one that they felt was not a good match for their child. Maybe they wanted their child at the neighborhood school, but the special education class that he needs is at another school, or maybe they were hoping to transfer out of a school with a bad reputation or one that was in the wrong part of town. Maybe their request for an important accommodation, piece of assistive technology, or one-on-one support person was denied. Whatever the issue is, the child may have heard or overheard the parent repeatedly talking about how awful it was going to be for their child if _________ did or didn’t happen. Some parents even promise their children that,”I’m not going to let them do this to you.” What happens to your child if you lose your battle and things don’t go the way you want?
It is great, and often necessary for parents to advocate for their child’s education. However, there is a right way to do it and a point at which you need to shift your focus toward helping your child accept and be comfortable with the situation that they will walk into when they return to school. To the extent that you can, keep you child out of your conflict with the school. Try to have conversations when you know that your child (or his/her siblings) is not going to hear you or see your look of frustration afterward. Communicating with the school in writing helps with the first part of that suggestion, but you still must watch your body language and what you say to others about the situation.
If it becomes clear that you have a less than 70% chance of getting what you want for your child, then you should make a deliberate effort to help your child be open-minded about what might happen in the future. Every option has pros and cons. Try to think and talk about some possible positives of things going the other way. For example, if your transfer request was turned down, you can talk about the shorter bus ride, the friend from last year that will be at that school, the fact that the school is newer, has a better playground, or the fact that your child already knows their way around the building. If your child was retained, you can talk about how this will give him a chance to catch up with his skills and be a much stronger student when he does move on to the next grade, the fact that he can still spend time with his friends outside of class, or how he will have a head start on his classmates because he won’t be hearing everything for the first time.
Even while you are hoping for the best, you should prepare your child for the worst. Do your very best to help your child go into the next school year with hope that things will go well. Continue to work on academic, organizational or social skills over the summer to help your child become a stronger student. Look for ways that you can work with the school to create a successful experience for your child, even if things didn’t exactly go the way you wanted them to. Helping your child develop resilience, the ability to bounce back from hardship, will be a greater gift than smoothing out every potential bump in the road to adulthood. You know what they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What you definitely don’t want, is to have your child go to school looking and feeling like he just sucked on a giant lemon!
Most of the time I think of parents as my primary audience when writing an Ask ECAC blog post. This time I would like to “flip the script” and address the educators and other professionals who have a lot of influence on the type of experience parents have as they participate in their child’s education. First, I’ll share a personal anecdote and then I’ll offer a few ideas that I think might make a positive difference for many parents.
When my son started high school there were several indications that things were not going to go as smoothly as they had with his older sister. The first clue was his class schedule that had everything wrong except for the PE class. Apparently the school had made the assumption that, because my son had an IEP, he needed to be placed in the lowest level courses that were available. There were a couple of bumps after that, but let’s fast forward to October when I received an Invitation to Conference notice about his upcoming IEP annual review meeting.
There was a name on the list of invitees that neither me nor my son recognized. When I asked his EC case manager who that person was, she responded, “That’s the regular education teacher that we use for IEP meetings.” It was clear that she was not prepared when I suggested that it would be better to invite at least one of the seven regular education teachers that had him in their class. When I later came to the school for the IEP meeting, the case manager had actually left the school grounds and two of the teachers had to leave before she returned. She started circulating the signature page of the IEP while we were still on page one. When she asked why I didn’t sign it and pass it along, I explained that we were not finished developing the IEP. Her reply, “that’s what we’re doing now,” referring to the fact that she was reading the draft that she had prepared, without so much as a pause that would allow anyone else to offer input, let alone invite us to participate. When I asked how case managers were assigned, she was eager to get rid of me as a parent who “asked too many questions.”
The new case manager was a teacher that I knew and loved from her previous work with my daughter. As generally wonderful as she was, I was surprised one day when I came for a scheduled IEP meeting and watched her scramble to find a room and round up the appropriate staff. I didn’t say anything, but she responded to my very expressive face by saying that, “you have to realize that only about 20% of parents come to IEP meetings.” I was shocked to hear this because I know that 99% of parents care about their kids and want what’s best for them. How could it be that so few of them come to high school IEP meetings?!
Admittedly without having conducted peer-reviewed research on the matter, I utilized my 25 years of experience working with parents to come to the conclusion that the poor attendance rate was largely the result of the experiences that the parents had up to that point. Many of these parents had been trained to believe that their input wasn’t needed or welcome. They showed up at meetings only to be read to and handed copies of a document that they really did not help create. When they made suggestions, most of them were shot down for reasons that they did not understand or agree with. Some of the IEPs have become so repetitive and/or generic that the meeting feels like a mere exercise in compliance. In some cases, there are parents whose children exhibit behavioral challenges, who have grown weary of hearing about how terrible their child is, or worse, made to feel like people consider them to be a lousy parent. Who would take time out of their life and make the effort to go the school for that?
If you are reading this, you are probably one of the good guys who try very hard to not do the things that I mentioned. However, you may know folks who have gotten into some bad habits, or you may be in a position to have a positive influence on staff that are involved with IEP meetings by raising awareness and cultivating good habits using formal (e.g. staff development) and informal (e.g. modeling, peer-mentoring) strategies. Parents will engage in the IEP process if they feel valued! Some very obvious “Don’ts” are imbedded in the text above.
Here are some “Do’s” that should help staff establish and maintain a productive working relationship with parents, based on mutual respect:
- At the beginning of the school year, initiate communication with parents so that know who you are, what role you play in their child’s education, and how they can reach you. Clearly express that you want to hear from them if there are questions, concerns or information that they feel you should know regarding their child.
- When you are planning for an IEP meeting, let parents know what is on the agenda (sometimes the check boxes don’t provide enough information for a parent to really know what to expect). Ask parents if they have any additional matters that they would like to discuss or people that they want to have invited.
- Make sure that enough time is allotted for the meeting so that important discussion isn’t curtailed and the meeting doesn’t feel rushed. Nothing says, “I don’t care” like starting a meeting with, “we only have 20 minutes so let’s move on.”
- Allow a few minutes for the parent to tell you about their child and what they think makes him special and unique. It not only helps the parent feel that you truly care about that child, but may also reveal information that could be useful to the IEP team and others who work with him/her.
- Send the parent a draft of the IEP proposals in advance of the meeting and invite them to think about any changes or additions that they would like to see. This gives the parent time to digest what is proposed, get clarification if needed, and come into the meeting with the same information as everyone else. Remember, information is power, so share it.
- Pause at the end of each chunk of the IEP, look at the other team members (make eye contact with the parent) and ask if anyone has any comments or suggestions. At points you can shorten this to a pause, look around and “Is this okay?”, but you want to set the tone with very deliberate invitations for parent input–not just with the parts of the IEP that require it.
- Recognize that the parent knows their child best and regard the information that they share as data that has as much value as the data generated by school staff. If there are important discrepancies between how the parent describes their child’s skills or behavior and what is seen at school, rather than declare that the only thing that matters is what happens at school, try to find an explanation. This could lead to a better understanding of the child and more effective educational planning.
- Be open to the parent’s ideas for accommodations, modifications, supports or strategies. Even if there seem to be some problems with the original suggestion, an earnest discussion about why the parent thought that it was a good idea can lead to another suggestion that the team can reach consensus on. That would feel so much better than simply being told “No.”
Just as negative experiences can discourage parents from attending IEP meetings, positive experiences can get them back in the game. The stakes are too high to simply allow parents to sit on the sidelines. The right coaching and teamwork can lead to the result that everyone wants: the child wins!
It used to be fairly simple to talk with parents about how promotion and retention decisions were made in North Carolina. Except for high school students, whose grade classification is based on the number and type of course credits earned, our Public School Law (G.S. 115C) gave school principals sole authority over how students were “classified” or assigned to a grade. Principals were expected to make this decision thoughtfully, considering factors like classroom work, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations and other relevant information. If parents were worried that their child might be retained, they were often advised to meet with the principal and share their concerns with the hope of influencing that decision. This is still good information, unless your child is in third grade.
Recent changes in North Carolina’s Public School Law (2012-142, s. 7A.1) offer some good, bad and not-so-bad news. Let’s discuss them in that order.
Good News: The North Carolina Read to Achieve Program is intended to put intense focus on effective reading instruction in the early grades (K-3) as a means of increasing academic achievement long term. It has a goal of ensuring that “every child is reads at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that she or he can read, comprehend, integrate and apply complex text needed for secondary education and career success.”
The positive purposes of this legislation are that (1) difficulty with reading development is identified as early as possible; (2) students receive appropriate instructional and support services to address difficulty with reading development and to remediate reading deficiencies; and (3) each student and his or her parent or guardian be continuously informed of the student’s academic needs and progress. So far, so good.
Bad News: In addition to the purposes listed above, the purpose of this law is to determine that progression from one grade to another be based, in part, upon proficiency in reading. More specifically, the State Board of Education must now require that a student be retained in third grade if they fail to demonstrate third grade level reading comprehension skills on a State-approved standardized test. Even though this law allows for certain specific “good cause exemptions” from mandatory retention, the Superintendent will now make the final promotion/retention decision. The Principal can only make a written recommendation to the Superintendent if they determine that a student qualifies for a good cause exemption and should be promoted.
Not-so-bad News: Students who are retained under this law will be given the option of attending a 6-8 week “summer reading camp.” At the end of the camp the students will be tested again and will be promoted to 4th grade if they demonstrate grade-level skills, either on that test or through a reading portfolio. If they do not improve their reading skills to that level, they will repeat 3rd grade with a possibility of being promoted mid-year if the are able to reach grade level by November 1st. Retained students will be provided with intensive reading instruction. Those students who are given a good cause exemption will also receive instructional supports and reading interventions appropriate for their age and reading level.
Students with disabilities can be considered for a good cause exemption if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that calls for reading interventions and the use of alternative assessments when they participate in the state testing program. If your child is below grade level with her reading skills, make sure that there is a reading goal on her IEP. Whether or not she has an IEP, you should monitor your child’s reading progress closely and ask questions if you feel that her skills are developing too slowly. Maybe something different needs to happen. Some children have disabilities, such as an intellectual disability, that make it unrealistic to expect grade level academic skills. However, it is extremely important that every child be provided the appropriate type and amount of instruction that will allow them to reach their fullest potential. North Carolina’s public school laws no longer mention “full potential” but, like most parents, that will always be my goal for each child.
We are just about at the halfway point in the school year. Report cards will be coming home. If your child receives special education services you should also get a report on his/her progress on their IEP goals. This is a great opportunity to think about how things are going and whether or not some changes need to be made. Ideally, we would all like to have a happy, socially-successful child who is learning and developing at or above the expected rate in all areas. If that describes your child, you should give a word of thanks to all who have helped make this happen!
If your child’s grades are lower than you think they should be, try to get to the root of the problem. Is your child having difficulty learning the material being taught? Is he doing poorly on tests even though he seems to understand the work? Is she doing fine on tests, but has a low grade average because of zeros for several school assignments that were never completed or turned in? Has your child missed a lot of instruction because of disciplinary actions that have taken him out of the classroom too many times?
Even if the grades are okay, there may be other reasons to be concerned. The grades may seem to be inconsistent with what you see when your child is doing home work. The progress on IEP goals may be moving much slower than expected. Instructional assessments may show that the gap between your child’s skills and the achievement standard for his grade is getting wider instead of more narrow. Is your child saying, or showing, that she does not want to go to school? Are you getting more reports about problem behavior at school?
If you do see any red flags, the first action to take is to try to understand what is working and exactly where there may be some problems. Talk to your child and your child’s teacher(s). Ask what you can do at home to help your child be more successful. Work with the teacher(s), other school staff, and the IEP team as appropriate to come up with solutions to any problems that are identified. Make adjustments in terms of instruction, materials, strategies, accommodations, services, supports, environment…whatever makes sense for your child at this time. Keep an eye on things to see if there is improvement or a need to try something else.
Homework is a fact of life for most students from 1st grade to high school graduation. It is intended to be an opportunity to practice newly acquired skills, review what has already been learned, and apply or extend instruction beyond the classroom. If the homework is appropriate for a student, they should be able to complete their work with very limited assistance from their parents. Parents are expected to show an interest in their child’s education and monitor their homework as well as the class work and tests that are sent home. They should make sure that the child has a reasonably quiet workspace and needed school supplies. Many parents will find it necessary to either prompt their child to get started on their homework, or ask them if they have already done it. What they should not do is take over the assignment and end up doing most of the work themselves!
I will occasionally hear a parent use the word “we” in away that makes it quite clear that they are way too involved in their child’s schoolwork. “We studied for this test…”, “We do homework for __ hours every night”, “We don’t understand the assignment,” “We are taking Algebra I,” etc. I sometimes challenge the parent to think about whether their excessive involvement is actually against the child’s best interest. Here are a few things to consider:
- Helping too much may keep the child from learning how to function more independently. Ask yourself: Am I teaching my child that he must have the full attention of an adult at all times? Can my child learn to use a textbook, dictionary or computer to look something up, rather than just asking me question after question? Can my child read the directions for themselves instead of handing me the paper with the expectation that I will explain, demonstrate and/or guide them step-by-step through the entire assignment? Does my child even attempt to do work on their own, or have they completely accepted that they “can’t do it.”
- Helping too much may mask the actual challenges that the child is having. The teacher who sees correctly completed homework coming back to school everyday won’t know that you spend 3 hours each night re-teaching everything, or pretty much giving your child the answers to the questions. This keeps important information about the student’s learning from being available to guide instruction. It could also lead to educators concluding that the child is “doing fine” when you ask the school to provide extra assistance or evaluate the child for special education services.
- Helping too much may lead to unrealistic expectations. The student may end up being placed in classes that are too difficult for them when they could possibly be more independently successful in a class that moved at a slower pace or required a more manageable number of work products. The student may feel pressure to get all A’s and B’s when they are really just an average kid who would probably earn mostly C’s under normal circumstances. A student who has been “helped” all the way through school may set (or be pushed toward) unobtainable career goals, unless the parent plans to go to law or medical school with them. And then what? Instead, each child should get the message that, as long as he is doing his best, that he is good enough!
- By trying to protect your child from failure, you may also cheat her from experiencing her own success. It seems that some parents are afraid that their child will be traumatized by getting a low grade, turning in an unimpressive product, or having to tell a teacher that they had trouble with an assignment. They forget that some risk and struggle is often necessary for growth and the ability to overcome adversity. Making things appear to be okay is not the same as developing real competence.
There is much value and satisfaction gained when a person can say that their achievements, great and small, were truly the result of their own efforts!