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The Richardson School

  • Posted on January 22, 2014 at 10:00 AM

On Monday, I took a tour of the new school for students with special needs that opened in my local area this year. I was greeted by the man who runs the school and taken into a meeting with the supervisor who works with this school and its sister school. We had an intense talk about Alex and Ben, what I was looking for, and how this school might meet their needs. Then, we took a look around.

The school was significantly smaller and quieter than I expected. There are only eight students and they only lease enough space to meet their current needs. They are housed in a full size school, but only use a portion of it. They will lease additional space as they need it, as their student population grows. The quietness was even more unexpected. Some of the students weren’t in school, because some districts honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a day off from school while others don’t, but even so the school was exceptionally quiet. While peeking in the classrooms, I saw that the kids were on task. They were attending, focused on their work.

As I toured the school, one of the most promising things I saw was the art room. If my boys attend this school, they will have art class twice a week, and could use additional art time as break time. The art teacher is actually an art therapist as well. Considering my boys’ inclination for art and their lack of opportunities to develop those interests in their current environment, this was an especially welcome sign.

Another plus was the emphasis on actual education. This school is committed to the Common Core State Standards, which is something all schools are supposed to target, but seems lacking in their current environments. So, it’s possible that Alex and Ben would be able to catch up to where they’re supposed to be if they attended this school. That would become clearer after the school staff assessed the boys. Though, one thing I really liked was their flexibility. They said that if they assessed a child and found, after a month at the school, that the child had a lot more potential than they thought, they could adjust easily to meet the child’s needs.

I was looking at this school to see if it might be a better environment for my children. After visiting this school, I think it may be just what they need. I have IEPs coming up for both of them. Wanting doesn’t make it happen, though, so we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

Embracing the Challenge

  • Posted on January 20, 2014 at 10:00 AM

A new school in my area is dedicated to providing children with special needs with a positive environment, as well as the educational and support services they need. It seems odd that I’m actually considering this, because, years ago, I was committed to ensuring all of my children had the benefits of an inclusive educational environment. Unfortunately, in this school district, that goal was unattainable.

Alex and Ben have both been placed in segregated school environments since they entered elementary school, where they have minimal interactions with regular education peers. They have primarily attended school in what is called a “CD” or cognitively disabled classroom—a classroom positioned “off to the side” of the regular classrooms that is designed specifically for children with more severe special needs. More recently, Ben has been pulled out of even this environment and placed in an even more isolated classroom due to his behaviors.

According to the principle of “least restrictive environment,” the ideal situation for both boys is an environment that provides them with the educational and support services they need in an environment that places the “least restrictions” on them. Now that a new environment is available, I’m beginning to suspect that the least restrictive environment will be a school committed to their needs, instead of a room segregated from their peers.

Today I will visit this new school and see the environment for myself. If I like what I see, I’m going to take a serious look at what is being provided for my children versus what could be provided for them. If the new environment is indeed a better environment for their education, then that will become a new goal. The idea isn’t, however, to have them “placed” somewhere specific, but to have their needs met in a way in a better, more successful way. Of course, I’m already meeting with resistance to the idea, but I’m up to the challenge!

A Look to the Future

  • Posted on November 15, 2013 at 10:00 AM

As someone who is working hard to realize my dreams and as someone who is adapting to my changing dreams, I think about the future and what it takes to be where you want to be when you get there. This skill comes in handy when I go to IEP meetings and the staff brings up the issue of “transition planning,” which refers to my children’s transitions out of the school system and into their adult lives.

Alex’s IEP meeting came first and, surprisingly, we discussed transition planning more in his meeting than in Willy’s. The impression I have from these meetings is that they have an established track for “people like Alex,” which involves building “job skills” and being transitioned into a sheltered work environment. Kandu and Riverside are two local examples that involve creating work for people with special needs that severely interfere with their ability to get “normal,” competitive jobs.

I understand why these tracks exist and, for the most part, don’t have a problem with their existence. This post isn’t about the problems I do have with such facilities either.

According to his teachers, Alex has good “job skills” and he enjoys the work. But there’s something Alex enjoys more and that’s art. I know there are individuals who, with appropriate assistance, can share their art with the world and have that as their vocation, even though they have special needs that severely interfere with their ability to live “normal” lives. Special needs, even severe special needs, don’t mean lack of talent. Unfortunately, his teachers don’t necessarily share my understanding of this kind of opportunity.

Part of it is that “artist” is a rather tough, competitive gig anyway you look at it. I know, because while my art is very different from Alex’s many of the struggles are quite similar. I know Alex would need support to make him successful on such a unique track, and I know that some of this support would be beyond my capabilities. But it is possible. It would also be conducive to Alex’s disposition in ways a sheltered work environment would not be.

It’s hard to know what Alex wants. I don’t know if Alex thinks about his future. Even if he does, there are few ways he can communicate his thoughts so that we can understand. But I know I don’t want his options to be limited to a track to a sheltered work environment. I want him to be able to choose to be who and what he wants to be.

Then, there’s Willy. At his meeting, he announced that he doesn’t want to go to college. But he still wants to design video games. I’m not sure the latter is possible without the former, but then again, if he learns the skills he needs, then he can do what he wants with the right support. Again, I know it’s possible and I know at least some of what he’ll need to make it possible for him. He also wants to have our house to himself—good luck with that one, buddy!

Testing Questions

  • Posted on November 11, 2013 at 10:00 AM

We don’t have a deadline, but we have a plan. Vaughn and I are writing a book about tests used in special education. If you read it, when it’s done, it will help you understand the various tests used to qualify a child for services and to help determine goals and objectives for those services. And, perhaps most importantly, which is which.

Is there a particular test you would like to learn more about?  Is there something about testing that you don't understand?  Provide feedback now and we'll do our utmost best to meet your needs!

The End of OT

  • Posted on November 6, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Surprise! OT is ending! Not for everyone, of course, or even for everyone in my household. I recently had Willy’s IEP and we discussed how he no longer needed OT services. Yay?

Well, yeah! For the last year, Willy’s OT services have only been on a consult basis. The idea was to create strategies that Willy could implement independently within his various classrooms to manage his sensory needs, while staying in class as much as possible to meet those needs. This approach has been so successful that the consults are no longer needed. They were kept in place primarily to transition him to his high school experience.

Now that Willy’s been in high school for a couple of months, Willy has made his adjustments. He’s not wholly comfortable in his new environment, as indicated by his rather compulsive need to sharpen pencils to exert a sense of control over that environment, but he is making effective use of his strategies and he is also fully integrated into his classes. He’s able to advocate for his own needs and generally does so effectively.

There’s still progress to be made, but it’s no longer about OT and sensory regulation. The occupational therapist will be available if things change, but for now she’s not needed. That is big, big progress for my young man! So, yay it is!

It’s Here!

  • Posted on November 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Have you ever come out of an IEP meeting only to realize you negotiated away your child’s services to get something you thought he needed more? Are you worried it’s going to happen again, because you’re not sure what you did wrong? Are you preparing for you first IEP meeting, but worried about the truly horrific IEP stories you’ve heard?

You don’t need to worry anymore! Dr. Vaughn K. Lauer, a renowned expert in special education, has written a great guide that will teach you how to work with teachers, therapists, and administrators to get the services your child needs—all of them! Using real stories gathered from real people, Dr. Lauer shows readers how IEP meetings can go wrong and teaches readers what they can do to make sure their IEP meetings go right—every time!

When the School Says No, How to Get the Yes!: Securing Special Education Services for Your Child
by Dr. Vaughn K. Lauer

Packed full of stories from parents, advocates, and school staff, this book lays out a structured, collaborative process that IEP teams can follow to determine what a child needs and how to provide services that meet those needs each and every time.

*Please note: One of the contributing stories is mine. I also edited the book. I am biased, but I do not profit from your purchase.

Meeting Results

  • Posted on October 16, 2013 at 8:00 PM

The meeting was a success! There, I saved you some suspense. Now, let’s take a look at what made the meeting a success.

Unlike a typical IEP meeting, we didn’t spend a lot of time going over what we knew. We met, conversed cordially until everyone got there, and then dug right into the new data. The school psychologist was the one to collect the new data. I worked with a different psychologist with Willy, but this was someone new, someone not familiar with Alex and his interactions.

The pinching that she observed was consistent with the normal behaviors we’d seen before. In other words, Alex didn’t attack anyone, which is what he’d done to start this process. So, for the first part of the meeting we concentrated on strategies to address these typical behaviors with the hope of extinguishing them.

In other words, we followed the data we had and came up with solutions using that data to:

  1. Determine the additional data we needed.
  2. Use what we currently knew to re-address our strategies.

After listening to the input from a variety of the specialists present at the meeting, a new approach became clear in my mind:

  • We know that Alex engages in pinching at times of apparent disorder.
  • We know that Alex tends to target certain individuals and we speculate that this targeting is due to the specific, predictable responses he receives.
  • We also know that Alex needs copious amounts of positive sensory stimulation to stay regulated and that Alex responds negatively to normal classroom sensory stimulation (different sensory stimuli in each case).
  • We know that Alex now receives positive sensory stimulation in response to pinching and we speculate that this has reinforced the pinching behavior.

From this, we concluded that Alex craves more predictability than he is currently being provided with and that we could provide this predictability by increasing the structure in his school day. We also recognized that Alex’s attention span doesn’t last a full hour, so the structure we add needs to be a shorter cycle than the typical way the school segments time. We also wanted to provide Alex with more consistency, sufficient positive sensory stimulation, modeling of appropriate behaviors, and opportunities to improve his communication skills.

A two-fold approach resulted from these conclusions:

  1. We would create a repeating cycle of predictable events that Alex can rely on. The cycle will be flexible, both progressively and functionally. This means that the same cycle will be used throughout the day, regardless of what the academic or therapeutic expectations are. It also means that the cycle will expand and contract according to Alex’s needs. For example, he’ll have shorter periods of sensory stimulation and longer periods of academic work as needed.
  2. Staff schedules will be managed to provide Alex with consistent adult support, so that the same people will be made available to Alex from day to day.

These two approaches answered the question, “How are we going to provide what Alex needs while we shape the behaviors we want to see.”

These conclusions updated the behavioral intervention plan that we had been using to better meet Alex’s current needs. There was a celebratory atmosphere for a moment. We were confident and enthusiastic about our new solutions. But it seemed premature to me. We still needed a third component to break the current pattern, and we needed it to be something that could address the more extreme situations, should they reoccur, like the one that made this meeting so urgent.

The vice principal had been silent throughout the meeting. He was there as an authority of the school’s and he hadn’t contributed yet. It was at this moment, when we had determined two of the three components I felt were necessary, that he spoke up to remind everyone why we were here. His voice was like a dash of cold water on the team.

I wish I could quote him, because he spoke very well. He approved of our strategies, but reminded us that Alex lived in a larger environment that included people who would not be as understanding or appreciative of Alex’s unique needs. After the severity of the last incident and previous relatively minor incidents where Alex sought out strangers to pinch, his concern was that there could be potential blow-back and that the school had to demonstrate a level of responsiveness to this aggressive behavior that had not yet been addressed.

In short, he was the authority person reminding us of the big picture. At the same time, he asserted himself as a member of the team, as well, by reinforcing that he, personally, was sympathetic and appreciative of Alex. He also said something that suggested he is also the parent of a child with autism. The cumulative result was that, while he was supportive of the work we’d just done, he has a responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of those Alex might hurt.

I respected his approach. He handled the situation well and successfully got us on a track that made it possible to address the serious concern that brought us to this meeting, even though we didn’t have any new data to use. Everyone seemed somewhat at a loss on how to go from here. Alex doesn’t really respond to traditional disciplinary action. Nobody really wanted the consequence to be Alex being sent home, both because it’s ineffective as a consequence (more of a reward than a punishment) and because it deprives Alex of school time for something he really doesn’t (to our knowledge) understand.

It was a difficult situation. It took me a while to express what I was thinking. As parents, we’d tried so many different discipline techniques and nothing had worked. Well, almost nothing. The one thing that had worked wasn’t something we really used on a regular basis. I tried it awhile back. It wasn’t planned. It was simply necessary. Occasionally, I would use it again when the situation warranted. Attacking someone for no apparent reason we could recognize seemed to warrant it.

Alex likes cars, especially when they are moving. When he was younger, he would walk out into the street to take a closer look if we didn’t catch him first. One time, I got to him just short of the street, took him back to the porch, and sat him down on our steps. With “hard hands,” I put his arms down and made him sit, watching the cars from the safety of the porch. It wasn’t so much a form of restraint as it was firm, authoritative physical contact. When he tried to get up, I said, “No. Stop. Danger.” Short, simple words that I knew he could understand. My face was stern. My voice was firm. It was the closest thing to discipline that ever worked with Alex. And I described it to them in as much detail as I could.

Together, we discussed ways to implement this technique in the classroom. What it would look like (like a time-out within the environment), what Alex’s response would be (yes, he would get angry), and what the result would be (Alex would calm down and would recognize that he had been stopped). We spent time discussing how it would work and recognized that it could be implemented right away.

We had the third and final component. That, along with increased data collection, will prepare us to meet again at the end of this month for his IEP. We’ll see how these strategies are working and we will fine-tune them with the new data we’re collecting. We’re optimistic.

Happy Birthday to Me

  • Posted on October 14, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m over thirty and under forty, so I’m at an age where I feel anything that doesn’t end in a 0 doesn’t matter. The point isn’t that I’m getting older or just how old I might be. The point is that I get to kick off my birthday with a rather special surprise.

At 8:00 AM I’m going to meet Alex’s team to talk about his heightened aggressive behavior. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

You see, Alex was sent home on Wednesday and we were asked to keep him home on Thursday. This was a surprise and at first I was quite put out. When I labeled it a suspension, nobody contradicted me, whether that’s what they were intending or not. We’ve been getting notes about an increase in pinching. We’ve been seeing that at home, too. Alex being sent home was related to that.

When I got there to pick up Alex last Wednesday, I discovered that there was a lot more than pinching going on here. For one, he was aggressive enough to really hurt one of the paraprofessionals, leaving instant bruises with more bruises surfacing later. That’s why he was being sent home. Apparently, Alex was also targeting people, too, though we don’t know why.

So, on Friday, when he went back to school, they had an independent observer come in to watch him throughout the day, so we could see if we could figure out what’s going on. Our best guess was “attention seeking” behavior, which would be a kind of breakthrough for Alex, though obviously with a negative spin, i.e. aggression. We’re hoping the observer will see whatever the school people aren’t seeing.

So, Tuesday morning, on my birthday, I get to go in early in the morning and talk about all of this and hopefully come up with a new behavioral intervention plan. I’ll let you know how it all goes in Wednesday’s post.

Pressure to Homeschool

  • Posted on October 4, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Every time something new happens with Ben and his school, somebody brings up homeschooling. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against other parents choosing to homeschool, nor do I have anything against the choice to homeschool being available.

I do, however, have a problem with others pressuring me and my husband to homeschool our children, Ben in particular. Homeschooling isn’t the solution. Not for us. Ben requires special education services, and we don’t have the training for that. Obviously, we teach him things. But we are not qualified to be his sole or his primary source of scholastic education. Nor are we interested in becoming qualified to be his sole or his primary source of scholastic education.

The school is responsible for educating Ben. The solution to our problem is for the school to meet its obligation. That very well may require others forcing them to meet this obligation. If so, I’m happy to do it and I know how to get help to make that happen.

Pressuring someone to homeschool their child is not appropriate. Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. Homeschooling is definitely not the right fit for my husband. While I may be closer, I’m also the breadwinner of my family. I can’t go to school, go to work, and spend a full day educating my child. Nor should I have to. We have schools for a reason. If there’s a problem, there are also ways to handle the problem that do not include pulling the child from school.

While I was napping…

  • Posted on October 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM

During my last post, I talked about my sleeping challenges. On Thursday, it became a problem, but only because a much bigger problem occurred while I was napping. You see, I stayed up until the wee hours of Thursday morning, slept for a while, got up, got the boys off to school, and then went back to bed to catch a quick nap before I started in on my work for the day.

While I was napping, Ben’s teacher and/or aide tried to take him to the bathroom. I don’t know what he was doing before they left or how they transitioned him, but it didn’t work. He threw a fit on the stairs. He ran into another room. He ran outside. He ran back into another room. He ended taking off all his clothes and his diaper. They couldn’t get him back into his clothes. Eventually, he urinated on the floor. He definitely walked through his urine. Someone claimed he rolled around in it, too.

I’m not sure when the calls started: when they couldn’t get him dressed or after he’d urinated on the floor. But they called the house once. They called my work number once. They might have called the cell, but it was turned to silent and I don’t have voicemail set up. Mark and I were both sleeping and we continued to sleep through these calls. Then, they called my mother at work.

By then, Ben had urinated on the floor. He still wasn’t dressed. She specifically told them to leave him as he was. By the time she got there, Ben was dressed and happy to be escorted out to meet her.