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Meet Heather Ouzts, NCDPI Parent Liaison

Heather Ouzts photo Heather Ouzts, Parent Liaison

NCDPI Exceptional Children Division

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” (Jobs, 2005)

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to find my passion —helping families of students with disabilities. I have spent most of my life caring for children whether it was at work, church, or in my own home. As a mother of four children and as an employee in the schools, I learned that ALL children have special needs; some needs are just more easily seen. As a mother of a child with a disability, I learned that ALL parents have needs as well. In my work as a parent liaison, I have the great opportunity of trying to help schools meet the unique needs of both their students and their parents.

I first discovered my love for working with families as the parent liaison for the Exceptional Children Department of Alamance-Burlington School System in 2012. For three years, I worked with families, schools, and community partners to provide educational opportunities and resources for parents and build partnerships in our community. In August of 2015, I began a new position as the parent liaison within the Exceptional Children Division at the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). As a member of the Policy, Monitoring and Audit Section, I was specifically hired to support families of students with disabilities in North Carolina’s public schools.

Along with our Dispute Resolution Consultants, I do take questions from parents regarding special education services and policies. They may be looking for resources or want to know who to talk to about a certain issue. Parents may have concerns or questions regarding how the school is implementing the IEP or what the parent can do if they have a disagreement with the school regarding their child’s special education services. Sometimes the parent wants to know what their rights are as a parent of a student with a disability. As a liaison, I work with both the parents and the schools to make sure the parents’ questions and/or concerns are addressed.

My work at NCDPI also allows me the opportunity to provide professional development and technical assistance to school districts and charter schools on parent engagement. We are currently working to increase the number of parent liaisons and parent advisory councils available in local school districts and charters across the state. I participate on committees working on issues related to transition, surrogate parent guidance, and the School Mental Health Initiative. I also support the Council on Educational Services for Exceptional Children, the advisory council to the State Board of Education.

One of the best things about this position is that I do get to collaborate across the Division and work with so many families and schools across the state. I am always learning something new. Honestly, I have been amazed and encouraged by the efforts of so many here at NCDPI to continue to improve outcomes for all students. There is a lot of “heart” behind the hard work that I witness each day and, as a parent of a child with a disability, it fills me with hope for the future as we strive to meet the needs of students and families.

We must continue our efforts to educate families. I am a firm believer that when everyone can come to the IEP table with knowledge about the strengths and needs of the student, along with an understanding of the special education process, we will have better outcomes for students. It is critical for schools and families to improve communication and build relationships in order to meet the needs of both the student and the parents. It can make all the difference.

It really is great work… and I love it!

Parents can reach me at:

Tel: (919) 807-3989 ~ Fax: (919) 807-3243

Visit us on the web at www.ncpublicschools.org

References: Jobs, S. (2005, June 15). Stanford Commencement Address. Retrieved from Apple Matters:

http://www.applematters.com/article/steve_jobs_standford_commencement_address/

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.

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!

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!

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.

Preparing kids at home for the Common Core Standards

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.

Don’t forget to plan for non-academic school time!

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.

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!