What Are All of the Related Services Available in Special Education?

Many children with special needs will qualify for related services.  Related services in special education are a variety of supportive services that are required in order for a child with a disability to fully benefit from special education.  If you have a concern about a particular developmental issue with your child, make sure and alert your case manager prior to the initial or re-evaluation assessments being conducted.  In order for a child to potentially receive a related service, assessments must be completed to determine the child’s educational needs in a particular area.  Most school districts, except for very large school districts, do not have all of these related service providers on staff Continue reading

IEP Progress Report: An Important Tool to Check on Whether Your Child is Progressing Adequately

You should receive an IEP progress report on your child’s annual Individual Education Program (IEP) goals and objectives as often as you receive report cards, which is usually three or four times during the school year.  There is usually a key or a scale at the bottom of the progress report that explains the letters or numbers generally used to indicate whether a concept has been introduced or not, as well as what level of proficiency your child has reached with each objective that has been introduced.  It is important for you to review the progress report so that you know Continue reading

IEP Meetings: Why it’s Important to Get a Draft Copy of the IEP Before Going to the Meeting

IEP Meetings are held throughout the year for children with educational disabilities.  IEP is an acronym for Individual Education Program.  Each child who is determined to have a disability according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must have an IEP created just for them.  The IEP should include several different components that are critical to your child’s success.  It has been my experience, with both parents who are new to the IEP process and parents who have been in the system for years that many do not fully understand the complex document that dictates what their child will learn each year.  I believe that most school districts need to do a better job of fully explaining the different components of the document to parents.

In my opinion, there are many different reasons for misunderstandings between parents and school districts regarding the IEP and/or the IEP process. One reason is that the federal law, IDEA, which governs everything regarding IEPs is very long, complex and cumbersome and each state has some leeway for interpretation of the law.  Another reason is that parents assume that school personnel fully understand the educational laws.  Another reason is that school districts often do not allow adequate time for IEP meetings.  Another reason is that parents trust that school personnel are experts in working with children with disabilities and so they leave everything related to IEP up to the school personnel.  These reasons for misunderstandings, along with others, I haven’t mentioned lead some parents and school districts to end up in long, drawn out battles over the education of a child with an IEP.

In the best of all possible worlds, parents and educators should be willing and able to work out their differences of opinion in order to assist the child with a disability to experience as much success as possible.  Sometimes this does happen and other times is does not.   In some cases, either the parent or the school district files for mediation and/or a due process hearing.  The scope of this article is not to talk about due process hearings but to discuss things that you, as the parent, need to know about the IEP document in hopes of avoiding due process.  This is not to say that, at times, this will be a necessary course for you to get what you believe your child is entitled to.

I encourage every parent to read the entire IEP document before signing it.  This is not a simple task, as the document is usually between 15-60 pages long.  It is rare, in this age that the facilitator of the IEP meeting will go page by page through the IEP at the IEP meeting because meeting lengths are often limited.  Early in my career, it was not uncommon for IEP meetings to last for two hours but more recently, I have been surprised if there was even an hour scheduled for the meeting.  An hour usually seems insufficient for me as the teacher, so I can just imagine that it is often insufficient for the parent.  This shift has happened for many reasons-the primary one being limited available time for both parents and professionals.  It seems that it has become more difficult for parents to get time off work to attend school meetings and it has become more costly and complicated for schools to release the school personnel from their regular duties to attend IEP meetings.

The document that is presented at the IEP meeting, whether it is an initial meeting, an annual review or a triennial meeting, is a “draft” document.  This means that the school district personnel have put together an IEP based on your child’s assessments and needs into a working document.  This means that the document presented at the IEP meeting is not a finalized document.  Information can be added, deleted, amended or extended based on the discussion during the IEP Team meeting, of which you as the parent are an equal member.  Due to the time constraints that are often put into place for meetings, I suggest that you tell the case manager that you would like a copy of the drafted IEP at least 2 days prior to the meeting.  It is important to give this information to the case manager as soon as possible, as he/she will have to assure that all of the school personnel have input their information into the draft document by the date you have requested to pick it up from the case manager.

Let’s take some time to briefly dissect the different components of the IEP so you can fully understand the importance of each section.

Assessment: Both informal and formal assessments are completed with your child for the initial IEP, the Triennial (every 3 years) IEP, anytime an addition or deletion of a service is being considered and/or if a placement change is being considered.  Annual IEP’s often include informal assessment results conducted over the course of the year.  These assessments are completed to determine if your child is eligible or remains eligible for special education services.  Formal standardized assessments compare your child with other children of their same age and/or grade level to get a statistical look at their abilities.  Informal assessments may include, but are not limited to, teacher notes, observations by staff members, student work samples, pre and posttests and therapists notes from sessions.  All of this data is compiled to create a profile of your child that helps determine if they are a child with a disability who is entitled to receive special education services.

Present Levels of Functional and Educational Performance: Every IEP should have a section completed by the service providers who either assessed and/or worked with your child since the previous IEP meeting.  This section of the IEP should clearly describe your child’s performance in all areas of their educational program.  It should include growth and skills your child has as well as educational needs and concerns to be addressed in the IEP.  You should see present levels for academics with specific areas of disability addressed (i.e. if your child has a reading disability this should be discussed in detail), social, emotional & behavioral , motor, speech and language , cognitive/memory, transition and any other specialized area that your child receives services in, such as audiologist services, Braille services, augmentative communication services, etc.

Goals and Objectives: Goals and objectives should be written based on the areas of need indicated in the present levels section of the IEP.  Goals are broad areas that your child needs to gain skills in.  Goals are usually written based on State or Core Content Standards so they tend to be wordy and long.  The objectives are the meat of the IEP.  The objectives are the specific skills your child will be taught over the course of the IEP.  Each objective should be specific and measurable which means it must have a current baseline.

Programming & Service Delivery: This section should clearly delineate what services your child will receive, what type of professional will deliver the services, what environment the service will be delivered in and the frequency and duration of the services.  If your child is being placed into a certain program this is where it should be written and explained (i.e. resource room, self-contained, out-of-district, special school, etc).

Statement of LRE: This may or may not be connected to the service delivery page.  There should be a statement that explains that the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) was discussed and considered in making the IEP and the percentage of time that your child will be educated away from his/her nondisabled peers should be indicated.

Accommodations and Modifications: This section of the IEP discusses the interventions and strategies that your child is entitled to in both the general education environment and the special education environment.  Accommodations and modifications help your child to have more success in their educational program.  They are often referred to as factors that help to “level the playing field” for children with disabilities.

Specialized Plans: If your child needs a specialized plan such as a behavior plan or an augmentative communication plan or health plan these documents should also be included in the IEP.

I have several articles either on my blog or on ezine articles that explain each of these components in more detail.  I just wanted to give you a quick run-down of what you are looking for.  If you receive the draft document before the meeting and take the time to read it you will make better use of your time during your meeting because you will know where you need to ask for clarifications and explanations, where items are missing, items you do not feel are appropriate and where you want changes made.  This arms you with the information you need and empowers you to be the best advocate for your child’s education.

Please share your stories about your experiences at IEP meetings and your experiences with getting draft copies of the IEP prior to an IEP meeting.

What is the Definition of the Least Restrictive Environment?

LRE is an acronym for Least Restrictive Environment.  The least restrictive environment definition in the law states that every child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is to be educated in their least restrictive environment.  Least restrictive is referring to how much the child is educated away from neurotypical peers in the general education setting. Children with IEPs must have some form of a disability that negatively impacts their ability to achieve reasonable educational benefit from the general education curriculum and structure alone.

In the United States, prior to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) children with disabilities were usually removed from and educated away from their “typical “peers.  This removal often led to stigmatization, isolation, discrimination and misunderstanding of children with disabilities well into their adulthood.  This law requires that special education teams carefully consider whether and how much a child with a disability needs to be educated separately from their neurotypical peers.

Each child’s LRE differs depending on their disability, their level of impairment, their educational needs, their behaviors and their learning styles.  For example, many children with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) and Physical Disabilities will benefit most from full inclusion.  Although some children with SLDs and Physical Disabilities have significant deficits that will need specialized instruction in a resource room or therapy room type of setting. Likewise, many children with moderate to severe Autism will benefit most from a self-contained program that is specifically designed to maximize the learning of children with Autism.  However, some children with Autism will be able to be included into general education for specials and for academic content.  It is not a cut and dry decision based on disability.  Each child’s individual education needs should drive the placement decision.

For some children their LRE may be a general education setting with specific accommodations and/or modifications that assist them to gain educational benefit from the regular education content.  Another child may be able to be fully included in the general education setting with support from a special educator.   Some children may need to go to a separate classroom for specialized instruction in one or more content areas.  For example, a child with a math disability may need specialized small group instruction in just that content area and may not need assistance in any other content areas.

Some children who have more significant disabilities that greatly impact their ability to learn in a general education setting  may need to be educated in a smaller special education classroom for the majority of the day. For these children there is still a responsibility to establish as much interaction with non-disabled peers as possible.  This may include attending specials, such as PE or music with their “typical” peers.  It could also mean exposure to non-disabled peers through lunch in the cafeteria, recess on the playground and/or school-wide assemblies.

Some children’s disabilities so significantly affect their ability to be educated in a regular public school that they are placed by the special education team at an out-of-district special school.  Whenever this decision is made, it is always the hope and desire that the child will gain enough skills to come back to a  public school setting in the future as to not be isolated from non-disabled peers.  Placement and service delivery decisions must always be made based on what the child’s educational needs are and what environment is the least different from a general education setting for the student to meet his/her goals and objectives adequately.

In my experience, school personnel often make a decision about where they want to place a child before the IEP meeting has even taken place, even though this should be a team discussion that involves the parents.  As a parent, you have a say in this matter.  I encourage you to ask questions about the placement recommendation and make sure you feel comfortable with the placement.  For many students it is highly beneficial to be included in the general education environment for the whole day, while other students have significant needs that require some or all of their education to occur in a different setting.  Make sure you understand what type(s) of environments your child will be educated in and that you feel this matches what your child’s educational needs are.  It is important to note that if your child’s stated education needs from the IEP require a certain type of program or a certain environment the school district is required to provide that either within their own school district or find an appropriate out-of-district placement.

What has been your experience with your child’s placement decisions?  Did you feel like you had a voice in the decision making process?  Did you want your child to be more integrated into general education or were you advocating for a more specialized program to meet their educational needs?


Simple and Fun Ways to Expand Your Child’s Vocabulary Doing Every Day Activities

Many children with special needs have delays in their vocabulary development.  Neurotypical children tend to pick up language from hearing it spoken and many do not need explicit teaching in their younger years.  As they get older, language arts and English classes teach vocabulary more directly.  Many children with special needs need to be directly taught basic vocabulary.  There are many ways you can expand vocabulary for your child with everyday activities in your home and the community.  If your child receives speech and language services at school, you may want to talk with your child’s speech therapist about coordinating categories for vocabulary development.  You can use items and activities that your child is interested in to expand their vocabulary.  You can also use outings in the community as vocabulary enrichment activities.  Expanding your child’s vocabulary can help to boost their self esteem and their ability to communicate with others  as well as help them with overall academic performance.

If your child is receiving speech services through their Individualized Education Program (IEP) it is advisable and will ,hopefully, be beneficial to talk with the speech therapist about whether you can coordinate vocabulary development by focusing on a topic or category each month or each quarter, based on your child’s needs and abilities.  Broad categories such as kitchen items, art supplies, sports equipment or types of sports, body parts, school supplies, toys and games, outdoor items, clothing, food, community establishments and/or community helpers and even prepositions are good ones to use.   Whether your child is verbal or nonverbal, it will be helpful to talk with your child’s speech therapist about items, activities and topics your child is showing an interest in.

The speech therapist will likely be working on a variety of skills with your child in school, based on their communication goals and objectives.  Coordinating a vocabulary calendar can help you know where to focus.  This may also be a great way to set up regular communication with your child’s speech therapist so you can keep track of progress, too.  If you notice that your child has a new interest, sharing this with the speech therapist may also help him/her to have more success with your child in the school setting.  Many speech therapists will also send home speech homework or a home program, if you request this.  If this is something you would like, ask for it to be included in your child’s IEP at the IEP meeting.  Children with learning difficulties need as much repetition as possible to integrate new concepts into their long-term memory so if you and the school personnel are working on the same overall concepts it will be beneficial to your child.

You can easily use activities or items your child likes to expand their vocabulary.  This does require that you are interacting with your child during the activity rather than sending them off to play by him/herself.  Planning a certain time each day for vocabulary development may be helpful for some people, while others will want to embed it into many activities they do throughout the day.  You have to find the right balance and style for you and your child.  If you have a sitter watch your child before or after school, you can also ask them to spend a certain amount of time working on vocabulary development.  The key to this type of play-based intervention is to make it seem natural to the child. You want the learning and labeling to be seen as part of the play.

Following are a few examples of how to incorporate vocabulary development into daily play activities.  If your child likes to do art projects then when you get supplies out, encourage him/her to ask for what they want.  If they point at, grab for, say an incorrect name or ask what something is, say something like, “These are scissors. Scissors. What is it?”  Then have them repeat the name again before giving it to them.  During the activity, make it a point to ask for the scissors so they hear the word again and then when they need them again they should ask you for them again, by name.  If your child likes to play with Lego’s and you want to work on prepositions, you can naturally build new terms into your play.  For example, “What color is under the red one?” or “Put this one next to the tree” or “May I have the long one behind the box”.  Then for each preposition model or point out the placement and get your child to do the same and then label it.  If your child likes to play with dolls, you can work on body parts or clothing items while you are playing together using the same strategies discussed above.

Household routines can also be used to learn new vocabulary in a fun way. If your child likes to help with cooking or to be in the kitchen with you, you can teach them new vocabulary in the following categories; furniture, dishes and utensils, foods, bake/cookware, large and small appliances and cleaning supplies(if appropriate) .  This can be done during food preparation, while setting or clearing the table, while cleaning, and/or while putting away groceries.  If your child likes to take baths you can teach them new vocabulary for toys they like to play with as well as items you find in the bathroom, such as; toilet, towel, soap, shampoo, shower curtain, etc.

Another way to expand your child’s vocabulary is when you are out of the house, either doing fun activities or running errands.  You can turn any outing into a learning experience through orchestrating it into a game or a scavenger hunt.  For example, if you are in the grocery store you can say something like, “Let’s see how many yellow things we can find in the store today.” Then as your child points out yellow items, label them for your child and ask them to repeat the label.  This can be done in most locations by giving your child a descriptor that he/she already knows (such as a color, shape, size, texture, function) or you can use it to teach new descriptors.  This also helps build a community awareness for your child-they learn that the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the post office, the drug store, restaurants and other places you go to are more than buildings and places to be bored at.  Occupying them with an activity such as this can also decrease meltdowns, especially if you have some kind of built in reward for “playing the game well”.

I encourage you to unofficially assess your child’s vocabulary during the day to see where he/she needs expansion.  Ask him to pass you the spoon.  Ask her to put the scissors next to the box.  Ask him where the milk goes.  Ask her what you are looking at.  Ask him which orange is bigger.  Ask her where you need to go to get medicine.  This helps you to know which labels your child knows and which ones need to be developed further.  Many parents have told me they were surprised that their child did not know the difference between a fork and a spoon, or did not know that “next to” means beside, or that the cold rectangle thing in the kitchen that milk is stored in is called the refrigerator or that the paper thing you’re looking at in the doctor’s office with pictures and words is called a magazine or that two of the same items can be distinguished based on “bigger“ or “smaller” or that the place you get medicine is a pharmacy(or a brand name store such as CVS or Walgreens).

Share with us how you help to expand your child’s vocabulary.  What strategies have you found most helpful?

Why is Accurate Measurement of Behavior and Academic Progress Important?

Measuring behavior and academic progress with children with special needs is essential for their long-term success.  This is why goals and objectives on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) or 504 plans must be specific and measureable in easily understood terms.  I often think of Descartes quote, “If it exists in some amount it’s capable of being measured”, when writing any objective-academic or behavioral, because this really is a true and valid statement.

When you look at any educational document for your child regarding goals, objectives and progress you should readily be able to see whether change has occurred over time and to what extend change did or did not occur.  If you are looking at data that is not quantifiable, it is useless.  How can an educator say there has been a decrease in a certain behavior or an increase in knowledge of a certain subject if they have not determined a specific way to measure the decrease or increase.  This why terms such as “he will show improvement” or “there will be a decrease in her “x” behavior” are inappropriate.  How are we defining “an improvement” or “a decrease”?  Quantifying these terms with a time line makes them appropriate.  We can measure, “he will show an improvement from 50% to 80% by the end of the 1st semester” or she will decrease “x” behavior from 20 times per day to less than 5 times per day within six weeks”.

There always needs to be a baseline, or a starting number, in order to measure progress.  Determining exactly where is the child is starting out before an intervention is begun is critical for good data analysis.  Baselines are usually determined by pre-tests, by counter based observations, by formal assessments and/or by informal assessments.  After a baseline is determined, an intervention to change the behavior or increase the child’s knowledge should be implemented.  After implementation, there needs to be another assessment of the same or similar nature completed to determine how much movement has occurred from the baseline. If there has been very little improvement or no improvement, we can usually conclude the intervention is not appropriate and move on to another strategy.   Let’s look at both a behavioral and academic example.

In the first scenario, I have an eighth grade female student with a learning disability and the problem behavior is that the child gets out of her seat and does something distracting.  The distractions tend to be sharpening her pencil, taking the bathroom pass and leaving the room to get a drink or take a walk in the hall or continually riffling through her backpack during instruction.  In order to get an accurate assessment of the behavior, I would ask someone else to do a minimum of three observations (this is generally considered standard because behavior can vary so much) of the same length of time of the child during instruction.  I would ask them to use a counter or tick marks to indicate how many times the child got out of her seat and engaged in a behavior that we had defined as disruptive to her learning during instruction.  I would then add up the numbers and divide by three (because there were three observations) and then that gives me a baseline. If the data showed that during the first thirty minute observation the child got up 5 times, the second  observation showed 7 incidents and the third observation showed 6 incidents this is what the baseline would look like, 5+7+6=18/3=6.  This child has a baseline of getting out of her seat an average of six times during a thirty-minute instructional period.  It is then very easy for me to measure a decrease, an increase or a flat line after I begin an intervention with her.  If I start an intervention with her and then have more observation done after two or three weeks and I see that the average is still high (5 or above), I can assume the intervention is not working well.  I then need to switch the intervention I am using to get better results because she is still likely missing a lot of important instruction if she is getting up and engaging in distracting behaviors.  The reason I distinguish this characteristic of ‘distracting behavior’ is that some children need to get up and move in order to attend better but for example purposes this is not the case with this child.

In the second scenario, I have a fourth grade male student with an emotional disability who is struggling with learning his multiplication facts between 6 and 9.  In this scenario, I only need to give one pre-test to determine what he already knows as long as I give it to him when he is in a god emotional state.  If the test is measuring facts from 1-10 by the multipliers of 6,7,8 and 9 the test would have 40 problems so I can easily get an overall percentage and a percentage for each multiplier to see if there is one that he I struggling with more than another.  If he takes the pretest and gets 16 out of 40 correct he receives a score of 40%.  After I have intervened and taught him new ways to memorize his multiplication facts, I must reassess him to quantify his growth.  If upon reassessment he gets 30 out of 40 correct, he receives a score of 75%, which is a significant gain.  I would, of course, want to keep working with him using this same intervention or another one to get his score as close to 100% as possible as knowing one’s multiplication facts is an important life skill.

In addition to solid measurements, a good objective also has a time line.  For my female student who is getting out of her seat and being distracted on an average of 6 times in a 30 minute time period I have great concern that this behavior is avoidance either because the content is too hard or because she has something going on emotionally.  In either instance, she is missing core instruction that will likely affect her overall performance.  If I get my baseline data in early October and wait until early January to reassess, she may have missed a huge amount of content, which is unacceptable.  Generally, behavioral objectives need to be reassessed frequently so that interventions can be adjusted.  Now, it may take me three months to get her from an average of six incidents to an average of two incidents but if I’m not assessing in between I don’t know whether my interventions are working or not.  I also have to determine whether two incidents of distracted, out-of-seat behavior are acceptable for this child.

For my male student working on his multiplication facts it may be more appropriate to take formal assessments on progress every couple of months rather than every couple of weeks because I will know by working with him if he is improving or not.  It really depends on what I observe during our sessions and on his scores on weekly quizzes or homework assignments.

Measuring behavioral and academic progress is critical for growth.  A good teacher should always be able to give you a baseline and a current (with a reasonable prior request) assessment of progress on any goal or objective.  Become knowledgeable about how progress is measured so that you can make sure progress is occurring with your child at an acceptable rate.

If have had many parents use similar strategies of measuring behavior  at home with children who exhibit  a variety of behavioral issues, difficulty following procedures, lack of homework completion and more.  Many children respond well to seeing the positive changes in their data that proves they are improving.

Do you use any measurement strategies at home?  If so, please share them!

What is a Quality Education for Children With Special Needs?

I was recently asked by a parent to write about my definition of a quality education for teaching children with special needs.  The specifics of a quality education vary for children with different disabilities and even for varying levels of needs within a disability category.  I will do my best to answer this question in a general way based on my experience and my philosophy.  Please feel free to write comments or start a conversation in the comments section regarding certain disability categories.

An important factor to bring up regarding teaching children with special needs is FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education).  Every child with special needs who qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is entitled to FAPE.  The word ‘free’ in this acronym means that the parents should not accrue any charges for their child with special needs to be educated in the public school system.  This means that if a child needs a service that the school district is not currently utilizing the school district must find someone to provide that service.  All costs involved in that process are paid for through the school district’s budget.  The word that is most hotly contested in this acronym is ‘appropriate’.  There has been much discussion and many due process hearings over what this word means.  The Supreme Court ruled in the Rowley case in 1982 that appropriate means “that the child gained some educational benefit”.

With that said, my philosophy is not for my students to only “gain some educational benefit”.  My mission is always to maximize the learning experience for my students.  If a child has qualified for an IEP their disability has indicated that they need some type of individualized instruction.  Children, whether they are gifted or special needs or nuerotypical, learn best in different formats and through various avenues.  This is why you should rarely see the traditional lecture/”talk at you” format used for the majority of teaching scenarios anymore.  Therefore, in my opinion, the first step in a quality education is to get an accurate assessment of the child’s primary learning style. Some children learn best auditorily, others learn best visually, others learn best kinesthetically, others learn best through using highly structured methods, others learn best experientially, others learn best through small group discussions, others learn best through explicit instruction and so on. Understanding how a child learns best helps me to plan the instruction in a way that is most beneficial for the child.

Another important step in a quality education is that the educator builds rapport and trust with their students from the beginning of instruction.  In order for me have a positive influence, children must feel like my classroom is a safe and engaging environment.  Taking a small amount of time up front to build a working relationship, establish structure and boundaries  and show my students that I do care about their growth will allow them to have so much more success as a student.  Children need to know that I am in charge but that this is our classroom and we are here to support every persons learning and growth.

The next step in a quality education is getting current assessment data that gives me a true starting point for the child’s skills so I can measure whether my interventions are successful or not.  I am a believer that assessments should drive instruction.  Assessment does not have to mean a formal or traditional test.  Many of my assessment techniques are informal.  The most important part is for me to understand what the child knows before I teach them a new concept, after I teach them a new concept and then again assess their knowledge after a reasonable amount of time has passed to see if they have retained the new skill.  Repetition is critical for all of us to learn, so quality teachers are constantly spiraling their instruction to hit the key points repeatedly in as many areas as possible.

Another very important factor for a quality education is that educators need to look at the needs of the child as a whole.  If I only focus on academic or cognitive development, I am missing the point.  In order to provide a quality education for young people I must always look at social development, emotional development, physical development, communication development and life skill development, in addition to cognitive development.  Quality instruction assists children to become integrated into society in a healthy and positive way.  One-dimensional teaching does not do this.

As a special educator, I also believe that regular parent-teacher communication is part of a quality education.  In the vast majority of situations, the more parents and teachers work together, the more successful the child will be.  I know this is sometimes a controversial topic, as some parents believe that teachers need to educate and parents need to parents and vice versa.  In my opinion, in today’s complicated, highly technical (and highly distracting), face-paced world working as a team with parents increases the success rates for children with special needs to become healthy, happy, productive, integrated members of society.

Share your thoughts below about what you believe are the most important factors in a quality education?

As I mentioned early in the post, if you want to discuss best practices for children with certain diagnoses start a conversation below.

Building Rapport With Your Child’s Teacher Can Increase Their Overall Success

Parent teacher relationships are very important for success with your child with special needs .I have been an educator for twenty years.  While I take a break from working in the schools this year, I am able to reflect back on my career and look more closely at the ups and down and the successes and failures.  For me, being an educator has been a blessing.  I have learned so much and grown so much as an individual and as a professional.  For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to help people and help make the world a better place.  Both of my parents are in “helping professions” so I am sure that is where the roots were planted at a young age.

Since becoming an educator, I have lived and worked in three states across the country-Washington, Colorado and New Jersey. I have held many different positions-special education teacher, school counselor, behavior specialist, school social worker, intervention specialist and substitute teacher.  I have worked with students and teachers who were in general education, special education, gifted and talented programs and English Language Learner (ELL) programs.   I have worked in school districts in suburban neighborhoods, in poor neighborhoods and in wealthy neighborhoods.  I have worked with excellent, supportive and child-focused administrators and not so excellent administrators.  I have worked in schools where the staff was tight knit and functioned as a team and I have worked in schools where there was more of “an everyman for himself” mentality.

In all of these different environments, it was always my students who were my focus.  I never saw being an educator as just a job I went to from 8-4; it was who I was 24/7.  I am a strong believer in the need to learn to adapt to the circumstances.  There were, of course, certain circumstances that were much easier to do this in than others, but I always strove to find the most effective ways to be present with my children, to educate my children and assist my children in moving forward on their own path to becoming citizens of the world we live in.  Whether I worked with a child once or for five years I saw it as my job to give them everything I could-to better equip them the learn and thrive in the world.

One of the ways I was able to be especially effective in this task was through collaborating with parents.  Many educators and parents across the country have different feelings about whose job it is to “educate” children.  I cannot say that any one way is the right way and I can tell you that the students who I have had, that have had the most success are the ones whose parents partnered with me to educate their child.  This has meant different things for different children.  Some required more time and energy than others did.  I have always established a communication system for the parents of my students and me to communicate regularly.  I have always welcomed and encouraged parents into my classroom to observe and give me feedback.  I have always asked parents to share as much as they are comfortable about their child’s struggles and success so that we can work together for more successes.

It is disheartening to me that now more than ever many parents and educators have an “us versus them” attitude.  I believe part of this is based on how litigious (or lawsuit focused) our world has become.  I also believe that both educators and parents have more and more piled onto their plates to accomplish with no more time and no more money and it is easier to be overwhelmed today.  Although I believe it is the educator’s job to reach out to the parent, if that is not happening then I encourage you to reach out to them.  In today’s fast-paced world, it can be a challenge and it does not have to be time consuming.  With the introduction of so much new technology, it is easier than ever to communicate quickly through e-mail and/or text messages.  In my experience, when a child knows that their parents and teachers are on the same page it makes a world of difference both academically and behaviorally.

If you would like to download my Top 20 Tips for Building Rapport with Your Child’s School, click here.

I would also love to hear about your experiences, both positive and negative, about parent teacher relationships..

How Do I Help My Child to Transition Without Meltdowns?

Knowing good transition strategies for your child with special needs is very important.  Many children with an array of special needs have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next, from one person to another and/or from one place to another.  Planning for these difficulties can often help to decrease inappropriate and/or out-of-control behavior from your child.  It is better to assume that your child may have a difficulty and prepare for transitions than to be caught off guard and have to deal with a major meltdown.

There are several strategies you can choose from based on your child’s needs, level of cognition, communication method and behavioral patterns.  I am not suggesting that you try to implement all of these at once.  You know your child best and you know what situations he/she tends to struggle with the most.  Use these strategies as a guide to help you to alleviate some of the stress involved with helping your child learn how to deal with transitions appropriately.  Unexpected transitions are also great ways to work on emotions, waiting and frustration management.

There are two very important factors no matter what strategies you decide to incorporate.  First, and most important, you must mean what you say.  If you tell a child he has five more minutes on the computer, 3 more minutes until she has to put away her toys, 1 more minute until he has to leave to go to the doctor’s or 1 more minute until the babysitter is coming and your are leaving, you must be willing to follow through, even if your child has a meltdown.  If you are not someone who follows through, children learn very quickly that they can manipulate you through their behavior.  I am a big proponent of timers, not only because they can give the child a visual reminder but also because they can help me stay true to my word.  My students have learned that when that timer dings, it means, “all done”.  Second, you must be very patient and use repetition in your language when you are referring to transitions.  You do not need fancy lingo.  Use simple commands or requests in as many situations as possible.  If you can get all caregivers to use the same language, it is even better.

Implementing a written or picture schedule can be very helpful for many children.  The needs of your child will dictate whether you need many specific schedules or fewer broad schedules.  Specific schedules are often helpful for children who have difficulty attending to steps in a process or difficulties with knowing what to expect in certain locations.  Some examples of specific schedules may include preparing for going to school in the morning or going to the grocery store or playing with a friend.  Broad schedules are good to give kids an overall vision for the day or the activity.

Some children respond best to nonverbal cues that you have previously set up.  If your child is verbal, ask him what type of cue he thinks would help him disengage from his current activity and move on to something new with less difficulty.  If he is nonverbal and likes pictures, go through Google images and find pictures he identifies with.  Some examples of nonverbal cues I have used with children are: flipping the lights on and off (as long as there are no children with seizures in my classroom), using the ASL sign for “all done”, ringing a bell or a chime that is only used for transitions, setting five minutes on a timer next to the child or putting the predetermined transition picture onto the child’s picture board.

Picture Cues are another method to help children transition.  This takes time on the front end because you either have to find pictures on the computer or take pictures of your child in different activities and scenarios.  For best results, you want to laminate them or use clear packing tape to cover them and then use Velcro tape to stick them all on a clip board or a wall chart.  Depending on your child’s abilities, either you can ask her to find the pictures or you can place the pictures on the schedule for her.  I usually have three slots for pictures with the following titles, “First I am going to…”, Next I am going to…” and “After that I am going to…”.  If the child is verbal I ask her to read it with me, if the she is nonverbal I read it to her.  Just before completion of the first activity, I bring the child’s attention to the board and say or sign, “What’s next?” so she knows a transition is about to occur.  When we get to the next activity, I move the top two up and then add on a new third one.  This strategy does take more time and effort and it seems to help many children tremendously.

Some children do not need pictures or nonverbal cues and you can use verbal cues for transitions.  This could be a traditional warning such as, “You have five more minutes with X and then we’re doing Y”.  This could also be done in a review format such as, “First, we’re going to drive to the post office to mail this package, second we’re going to go to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine, third we’re going to see your speech therapist at their office and then fourth we’re going to go to the park and you can swing on the swings”.

Unfortunately, the best thought out plan is sometimes interrupted or unexpectedly changes and many children with special needs have significant issues dealing with this.  It is important to talk to your child about emotions-especially strong negative emotions such as disappointment, anger, sadness and frustration.  You can find posters or work sheets that have many different faces showing different emotions.  There are great books picture books you can use to talk about emotions with young children.  I have also used movies, video games and television to talk about emotions with older children.  All children need to understand that there are times when they are going to feel these emotions and they need to know what is expected when they feel them.  Most children with special needs, and many neurotypical children, need explicit instruction in this area.  As a family, it is important to discuss how you handle negative emotions.  I encourage children to express their feelings verbally, through sign or through pictures.  I then validate the feeling by saying something like, “I see that you’re sad because we couldn’t go to the park because it’s raining, what could we do instead” or “I hear that your angry because you wanted a candy bar at the store and we couldn’t get one, what else could we have instead”.  Giving alternatives can help to deescalate a situation.  When I give choices and the child says something like, “No, I want the park or I want the candy bar”.  Then I calmly say again, “Your choice is A or B or nothing”.  Children will initially test you but very quickly learn that they would rather have something than nothing.

What types of transitions are the most difficult for your child?  What has worked best for you in helping your child to transition?  I would love to hear your stories and thoughts on this subject!

Five Strategies to Increase Reading Comprehension With Your Child With Special Needs

Many parents of children with special needs are working to increase reading comprehension with their child.  It is not uncommon for children with special needs to struggle with understanding what a story, or even a paragraph, is about, who the main characters are, what the setting is, what the problem or moral is and/or what the function of a story is.  There are hundreds of strategies that can assist your child to gain a better understanding of fiction.  In this article I am going to discuss the five strategies that I have found to be most beneficial in increasing reading comprehension: breaking the material into very small chunks, connecting the story to a real life situation or emotion, making reading multisensory through audio books, DVD’s or by being read to, connecting to literature through art and the need for repetition.  Working on reading comprehension requires you to be much more present and interactive than simply reading a story before putting your child to bed.

Children who have issues with short-term memory, concentration and/or getting the “big picture” are rarely able to comprehend a whole story for younger children or a whole chapter for older children.  It is best to stop reading after 1-2 pages to discuss was has happened so far, who is in the story, where the story is taking place and what he/she thinks might happen next.  If the story is a picture book, you can use the pictures as clues.  Ask your child questions to evoke responses.  If they do not know the answer or seem confused, point to the text and/or pictures that will help them answer your question.   As you are going through the story or chapter, stop often and ask new questions as well as questions you have already asked to check for retention.  If the retention is poor, flip back to where you first discussed that item.  With this method, you may only get through a small section of the chapter or book, but that is okay if you are working on comprehension rather than fluency.

If you can help your child connect to something in the story through a real life situation or an emotion they have felt they are much more likely to comprehend and remember the story.  Many of us who read fiction, look for how it relates (or does not relate) to our own life.  Ask questions such as, “What does that remind you of?”, “Do you know anyone who has done that/felt that way?”, “What happened last week that made you feel like that?”, “Have you ever been to (the setting)?  What did you do there?”, or “How do you think (a character) feels?  Why do you think (he/she/it) feels that way?”  These types of questions can help build the bridge to better understanding because there is a personal connection.

Many children with special needs learn best in a multi-sensory format.  Children who struggle with reading comprehension, even if they can read the text, are better off listening to a story than reading it to themselves.  For some children listening to an audio book while they follow along is very helpful because they are getting the visual input from the text , and pictures if there are any, and they are hearing the text auditorily.  Many children’s books are also on DVD and seeing the text acted out may draw another form of connection for your child.  Check with your local Library or your school Librarian about what they have in stock.

If your child enjoys art-coloring, drawing, using clay or play-dough or crafts-creating things along the way or as a final project can also increase their comprehension.  This is another multi-sensory strategy that helps many children connect the content of the visual book through the tactile senses.  I have had children of all ages do tactile projects as a way to summarize text.  Many children also find this much more engaging than simply discussing a book or writing about a book.

Repetition is critical in the learning process of many children with special needs.  How many of us when we are reading ourselves have to go back and reread something because we were distracted or tired or simply need more time to process the information?  Most, if not all, people do this on occasion.  If your brain is somehow impaired by your special learning needs this needs to happen multiple times for retention to occur.  With my early learners, I reread the same book every day for an entire week to help them integrate different concepts.  A few children will comment that we have already read this book, but most are happy to go back through it and it helps them connect to the text.  For more advanced learners I always ask them to do a summary of what has already happened in the story before we move on to new content.

What reading comprehension strategies have you used to help your child connect to fiction?  How have you supported your child in gaining an understanding of the text he/she is reading in a way that is meaningful to them?