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Great Back-to-School Checklist

The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) has created a great Back-to-School Checklist for families. It contains some tips that apply to parents or caregivers of all children. There is also a series of tips especially for parents/caregivers of children who have health concerns.

Even though school has started, it’s never too late for a good idea. Check it out!

Back-to-School Family Checklist

Becoming an advocate for your child or finding one

At least once each day we get a call from a parent who is trying to find an advocate for their child. Often they want one to go to IEP meetings with them. We explain that ECAC is a Parent Training and Information Center and that our goal is to help parents become effective advocates for their own children. We then offer to try to help and invite them to tell us what is going on with their child. Most of the time the parent will proceed to tell their story and we go on to provide individual assistance in whatever form is needed for that specific situation.

A few parents, however, will go right back to their original position. They declare that they need an advocate and, if we won’t go to the IEP meeting with them, they ask us to identify someone else who will. Those calls sadden me because the parent usually ends the call without giving us a chance to help them.

“Advocates” come in lots of different forms and a parent’s experience with them can vary tremendously. Some organizations will allow their staff or volunteers to go to IEP meetings with parents.  There are educational consultants and other professionals who will serve as advocates for a fee. There are also individuals who have made helping families with school issues a personal mission.While it may meet a parent’s immediate need for support, sometimes using an outside advocate does not result in long-term benefit to the parent or student.

Occasionally, an advocate will take an adversarial approach that increases tension and creates additional barriers to communication and collaboration between home and school. Such situations are never in the best interest of the student. If you ever find that you have associated yourself with someone who seems more interested in winning a fight than with improving your child’s education, you should seriously consider limiting the potential damage by not inviting them back for a repeat performance.

Another problem that often happens with professional advocates is that they tend to keep knowledge to themselves rather than pass it on to the parents. This generally means that the parents do not learn the skills that they need to handle future issues on their own.

superheroWorking with your parent training and information center will help you better understand educational jargon, special education processes and policies, the rights that you and your child have, and how you can help shape your child’s educational experience. It is our job to make sure that you have the information and skills that you need to successfully advocate for your child today, tomorrow and every day after that. Everyone knows that knowledge is power. YOU are your child’s most important advocate. Be a powerful one!

Tools to help others know your child better

One of the most basic advocacy tips for parents is to make contact with your child’s teachers at the beginning of the school year, or anytime new teachers or service providers become involved. One purpose for this initial contact is to introduce yourself, exchange information about how each of you prefers to be contacted, and to establish a good working relationship long before there are problems to tackle. Another important purpose for this first contact is to share some vital information about your child, such as the fact that the child has a disability and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan. Sometimes classroom teachers are not made aware of these things right away.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of diagnoses, accommodations, modifications, special education services and such, it is important to make sure that the people who will be working with your child have a sense of who that child is as an individual, unique human being. Some parents simply write a letter, others have created brochures and PowerPoint presentations. ECAC has developed a couple of tools that make it easy for parents to share important information about their child with others.

ECAC Painting the Big Picture 1 Painting the Big Picture This is a worksheet that offers a way to quickly share information about things such as your child’s likes, dislikes, strengths, successes, challenges, as well as your dreams and visions for your child’s future. In each section there is also a place to share tips and successful strategies (what works) that help your child overcome difficulties and build relationships with others. There is even a place to capture Other Helpful Information that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This could include information about special healthcare needs, dietary restrictions, fears, unusual responses and things that can be done to calm your child when he/she becomes upset. Having a written document to refer back to will give teachers and others a big head start as they get to know your child!

ECAC_StudentSnapshot2014 1 ECAC’s Student Snapshot serves the same basic purpose as Painting the Big Picture, but it mainly focuses on the most important information that will make the biggest difference for your child. Areas of concern could include things like emotions, communication, sensory issues, medical conditions, academic needs, etc.  In addition to teachers and other school staff, ECAC’s Student Snapshot can be shared with childcare providers, summer camp staff, Sunday School teachers, Scout leaders, etc. It provides a description of something that the adult may notice, an explanation of what that probably means, along a suggestion or two. Statements could go something like this:

When you see that I’m not raising my hand to answer questions, I’m probably not confident that my answer would be correct and I don’t want to embarrass myself. You can help by only calling on me when I do raise my hand.

If I ask to use the bathroom in the middle of an activity, it means that I cannot wait until the next break. You can help by letting me go immediately so that I do not have an accident.

If I’ve been having problems with asthma lately and I seem unusually hyperactive, it may be a reaction to the medicine that helps me breathe better. Please try to be patient and find ways to keep me occupied so that I don’t drive you crazy.

Teachers can also share these tools with parents so that they can get to know their students more quickly. It would also send a clear message to parents that you care about their child. Regardless of who reaches out first, sharing important information will help the people in a child’s life work together as a team. This will give the child a much better chance to have a successful experience.

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 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!

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 as an equal part of the school community or are overlooked altogether.
  • 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!

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.

Don’t let YOUR disappointment cause your child to fail!

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.

make lemonade out of lemonsIt 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!

FAQ: Can I pick my child’s teacher?

questions-and-answersFAQ:  Do I have a right to choose my child’s teacher?

Answer:  As a general rule, parents do not have the right to select the school staff who will be working with their child.  However, there may be ways that parents can influence that decision.

This question is usually asked by parents of children in elementary school.  The situation in middle and high schools are complicated by scheduling limitations (only so many sections of a particular course are offered at any given point in time), the requirement that secondary teachers are highly qualified in the content area in order to teach a core subject, and the practice of organizing middle school students and teachers into “teams”.

Elementary school principals are typically  responsible for assigning students to specific teachers.  It is expected that this process is not done randomly.  Principals have lots of information available to them to help make that decision.  They can consider student  factors such as age, gender, skill levels, discipline history as well as teacher input and recommendations.  Teacher characteristics, experience and training are also usually taken into consideration.

Once classroom assignment decisions have been made, most principals do not want to deal with a lot of parents who are unhappy that their child did not get assigned to the most popular teacher at that grade.  They often worry that the floodgates will open if they give in to a parent’s request to add “just one more child” to Miss Suzie’s class.  This is understandable.  The principal is trying to make sure that all teachers are valued and seen as competent, and that there is an equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of the student population.  A parent who pushes the issue too hard can find themselves on the losing end of a power struggle.

So, what can you do to help get your child assigned to a teacher that will be a good match?  Or at least avoid a worst-case scenario?  Some kids can go with the flow and will be fine with almost any teacher.  For that child, it will probably be safe to let things occur without any interference.  However, if you have one of those children who is not going to be okay in every situation, or will not do well with every teaching style, it is best to be proactive.  It is always easier to influence a decision before it’s made, than to change it after the fact.

In late spring, try to set up a face-to-face meeting with the principal to talk about your child and his educational needs.  Share information about what makes your child unique.  Discuss relevant personality traits, past experiences, learning style and disability-related issues that you would like the principal to think about when they are deciding who to assign as your child’s next teacher.  You can talk about classroom environment and teacher traits that will allow your child to function at her best.  You can also mention past situations that did not work well for your child.  Be careful to not put down any past teachers!  Instead, you can talk about teaching styles, amount of classroom structure, authoritarian versus nurturing approaches, physical environment requirements, health and safety needs and any special issues regarding interaction with other students.

Unless the principal is new to that school, they should know their staff well enough to know which teachers are a good match for your child and which will likely lead to disaster.  Leave a written summary of the key points that you want the principal to think about.  The actually classroom assignments may not be made until weeks or months after your meeting, and your document can be a much-needed reminder of the things you talked about.  If you learn that the decision will not be made until the end of summer, consider sending a greeting (by phone or email) expressing that you and your child are looking forward to the new school year, and thanking the principal for taking the time to meet with you earlier to talk about your child.  If you send an email, it might not be a bad idea to attach another copy of the reminder document.  Play that one by ear though, and skip the attachment if you think that the principal might consider it too pushy.

 

Remember, the goal is to get a good situation for your child, not for the principal to feel like you are trying to tell them how to do their job.  Diplomacy and effective advocacy are often about knowing when, how, and how hard to push.

When to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation

african-american woman starring off with look of concern on her faceThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents of children with disabilities several rights and protections.  One of these is the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school system’s expense if they disagree with an evaluation that was conducted by their public school system.  The IEE is intended to provide a “second opinion”, and would be limited to the same areas of focus that were included in the school evaluation.  For example, if the school evaluation included psychological, educational and speech/language assessments, the IEE would only include psychological, educational and/or speech/language evaluations.  The parent would not be able to add an occupational therapy evaluation and have the school system cover that cost as part of the IEE.

Most of the time, there is no need for an IEE. A properly planned and conducted school evaluation will typically give the IEP team the information that is needed to make decisions regarding a child’s eligibility for special education services, and to develop an appropriate individualized educational program (IEP) to meet that child’s specific needs.  However, there are other times when a parent may want to consider the option of requesting an IEE.

If a child is found to be not eligible for special education services based on a school system evaluation, an IEE may provide additional information for the team to consider and perhaps change the eligibility decision. Sometimes the test scores will be higher or lower, or they may show a larger gap between the child’s general ability and his functioning in an area where there are concerns.  The independent evaluator may use different tests or assessment methods that provide additional insight into the nature of the child’s difficulties and the pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  This new information may tip the balance, and convince the team that the child does meet the eligibility requirements for special education services.

In some cases the school’s evaluation has resulted in scores that meet the eligibility criteria, but the team feels that there is not enough evidence that the student requires “specially designed instruction.” Team members may cite an acceptable level of performance, or a belief that factors other than a disability (e.g. excessive absences or a lack of appropriate instruction), may be responsible for the child’s weaknesses.  In this situation, a second round of testing is not likely to change the eligibility decision.

For a child who gets, or already has, an IEP, there may be other decisions that are influenced by initial or re-evaluation results.  The need for related services, certain accommodations or supports may be based, in part, on information gathered during a school evaluation.  Inaccurate evaluation results may result in low expectations, disability issues that go unrecognized (and unaddressed) or even placements in more restrictive settings.  The IEE could provide data that could prove to be a “game changer.”

The school system may provide a list of local clinicians who are qualified to conduct the requested evaluations, in an effort to assist parents in obtaining the IEE.  However, parents are not limited to the persons on the list.  They can select any professionals who are qualified to conduct the evaluation(s).  The school system cannot establish an arbitrary dollar limit on the cost of the evaluation.  The school system also cannot require the independent evaluators to only use certain assessment tools.   Typically, billing arrangements are set up before the actual evaluation is scheduled, and the school system will receive a copy of the evaluation report.  Note: When parents pay the cost of a private evaluation themselves, they can control whether or not that information is shared with the school.

If you feel that the school’s evaluation does not paint an accurate picture of your child and his or her needs, then an IEE may offer one of the best chances of obtaining the information needed to possibly change the outcome when the IEP team reconsiders important decisions.