Education Bi-Monthly Hints

Jean Stern M.Ed
Article

When your child gets special education services in elementary school, there are so many details to remember that it can be overwhelming. You wonder: What should I do—and what will people at school do? Where do I start? There is no list of hints that fits everyone, but here are a few ideas to think about each school month.

September/October

This is start-up time, so all hints are around getting off on the right foot.

  • Take your child to visit before school opens, to meet and chat with any teachers who are around. Introduce your child and help the child to get to know the building: cafeteria, bathrooms, etc. (It is ideal to arrange this at the previous spring’s team meeting, so that the aide, guidance counselor, or other key team member meets you and your child by appointment during the week before school starts.)
  • Make sure to get a map or other written materials such as class rules or a school schedule that will help you prepare your child at home for a school event.
  • Give teachers a short paragraph or bulleted list of the most helpful hints for a good start, perhaps the “Top 10 Strategies for a Great Start” with your child. Involve your child in deciding what to include, and in speaking with the teachers if your child can.
  • On the way home buy a good-sized monthly wall calendar for working on breaking down long-term assignments, time management, and life scheduling to prevent becoming overwhelmed. This will be in addition to the nightly assignment sheet or book that all students will be using.
  • Two good reference books that will assist you with understanding sensory integration and self-regulation (both needed for start-up) are: Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues by Brenda Smith Myles and The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz.
  • Help your child learn and practice self- advocacy statements.
    • Does your child know what bothers him/her a lot (loud sounds, pencil sharpeners, being overheated after gym, touching my book-bag, etc.)?
    • Does your child know what usually calms him/ her and can provide a relaxing break (reading, computer time, head phones and music, looking at a phone book, drawing, etc.)? Help a child learn from your observations which events or activities are uncomfortable and which are desired.
    • The next step is for your child to learn statements to politely ask for what s/he needs (self-advocacy and independence).
    • A good book to use to help your child get “user friendly” with his/her body is Asperger Syndrome: An Owner’s Manual by Ellen Korin. As an adult guides the child through this workbook, the child learns his or her strengths and weaknesses, and establishes plans such as “My Personal Melt-down Prevention Plan.” Selfknowledge is the best foundation for success.
  • Be sure your child has a good homework area set up for the year. Often this is a clear, uncluttered space used only for homework, quietly separated from everyone else for focus. However, some children want to be close to a parent, and may choose to work at the kitchen table. The child should have all necessary information about assignments, books and other materials at hand, and good lighting (natural and electric).
  • Next discuss with your child the best time to do homework. If the child’s suggested time won’t work well for the family, or the child might be too tired, talk about it and explain why another time might be better. These conversations help the child learn time management and problem solving. Try to find a time without sibs around. Another approach is for everyone in the family do their homework together at the same time with quiet rules and a parent to facilitate. Remember that there is no one way. Customize your homework place to the needs and preferences of your child.
  • Establish a home-school communication system. If the school does not provide this for you right away, take the lead and offer ways to start this vital two-way communication ASAP. Find out whether educators prefer written, phone or email communication. You might even offer to make up a simple example of a grid that can save the school a lot of writing time. Here is one example but customize your own:
    Child’s name_____________________ Date_______________
    Staff recorder today _______________________
    Homework (A block for each class)
    Please provide all visual supports such as creative writing charts.
    Long term assignments: specific sub-tasks and due dates, required source materials, format, etc.
    Current direct instruction skills being worked on for carry over at home (social, organizational, pragmatics, self advocacy, etc)
    Upcoming change or event to prep for at home
    Home questions or news school needs to know
    School news or questions: upcoming meeting, notes from teachers, etc.
  • Decide how often you will communicate back and forth and then use your system consistently. Learn who you need to contact if information is not coming home or if the communication plan needs to change. Communication systems almost always need revision over time. A monthly face-to-face team meeting (parents plus key educators) opens channels of communication and builds positive relationships.

November/December

Continue to hone all the systems you started in September. With October’s increase in academic focus and establishment of each teacher’s own system, you will need to be sure these new details are included in your communication and self-advocacy support at home. With the fall fully under way, there is increased academic and social pressure, so be sure your child has a Calm Down Plan in place at school, if needed, which describes where the student can take a break, how to notify the teacher that s/he is overwhelmed, and what activities s/he is permitted to do there (with no negative repercussions). Good books that help children learn self-regulation are: The Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron, and Replays by Karen Levine and Naomi Chedd.

Your child should also be equipped with a plan for what to do if anyone teases or bullies her/him. Many neurologically different children are bullied. They can also misunderstand peer interactions and perceive that they are being bullied. They will need help in understanding these situations, and knowing what to do. All plans need to be worked out with the school, and all adults need to support their use. If the school hasn’t included some “acceptance of differences” program, encourage them to set aside a time for classmates to discuss “Children Who Think Differently” and how they can be good friends to them. A good video to help the class and the facilitator is Intricate Minds by Dan Coulter. (See Coulter Videos on our Shop to Benefit AANE page.)

Be sure that by November you have been given the basics of the writing program that your school uses, so you can help your child get his or her thoughts down on paper using the plan and the expectations that your child’s teacher has set.

As the holiday season begins, be sure that you know about any special events and changes in the regular schedule that are coming up. Holiday concerts, special plays and all the rehearsals can raise your child’s anxiety. You can help your child with changes in the routine if you can preview them at night. Post any of these changes on the large monthly calendar you use for time management and assignment break down. Remind your child that if changes in school raise his/her anxiety, s/he can use the calm down plan. Around Thanksgiving, please remember to thank the staff for all their extra efforts.

January/February

Check the communication system and tweak if necessary. Is everybody using it? Is there any teacher you need to contact? Is there a new area that needs to be included now? If monthly face to face check-in meetings have not been written into your IEP, try to schedule at least one by mid-year. Discuss with your liaison or team facilitator who should attend. These meetings are great for you to learn what the school is working on, find out the best ways to carry over new skills into the home, and share your concerns.

How are social connections and friendships coming along? The winter months have many events and opportunities for a friend to come along to something your child will attend. Is there someone with a similar interest in your child’s class? Is there an activity they both might enjoy together? Setting up structured play dates is an important part of practicing the social skills your child is learning in school. Remember that generalization of social skills is all about having opportunities to apply the skills that the child is being taught in his/her social skills group as many times in the community as you can. See “Nobody likes me:” Helping Your Child Make Friends by Elaine McEwan.

Now is the time to choose and apply for summer programs. Good programs fill up fast. Start to think about what your child’s summer options may be. Does your child usually get offered a summer program from your town? You may want to speak to the educational team about eligibility for year-round programming to ensure that there is effective progress toward social goals in particular. Are there other weeks you would like to fill? Does your child need time off from the structure? Do you want to focus on remediating lagging skills or giving him/her a great experience in the area they are most interested in (such as computer camp, theater camp, etc.)? Working parents want, if possible, to cover all the weeks of the summer (outside of family vacation weeks) and it usually requires a few options to cover the 10 weeks of summer. (However, this may be too much for some children.) If you would like AANE’s camp list, please just contact Children’s Services and we’ll be glad to email it to you.

March/April

This is the time to get ready for IEP time. Soon the educational team—parents plus educators—will review your child’s progress and make plans for both the summer and the next academic year. Hopefully the home/school communication system has kept you informed about your child’s progress toward his/her goals.

With this information in hand, think about next year. Has your child made successful gains with his/her current services and program, or is something more needed? Will your child be staying in the same building, with the same support staff, or is it a year for a transition to a new building? Is it time for a complete re-evaluation (e.g. neuropsychological evaluation, generally every 3 years; possibly also academic achievement or other assessments, such as Assistive Technology, OT, Speech/ Language)? Asking these questions will help you decide how much preparation will be needed for your IEP meeting. If your child is doing well, communication between home and school has been good, and there will be no major program or building changes, your preparation will be less for the upcoming meeting. Most transitions within a building are small, and it’s easier to assure that they go well. Transitioning from one building to another requires good preparation and communication to the receiving staff as they plan for your child within their setting. (See Dot Lucci’s excellent article, “Familiarity = Safety.”)

If your child is having significant difficulties with the present placement, the program is not going well, or any other option for placement is being looked at, a re-evaluation should be thought of. A change in placement will require it. If it is unclear to the school staff why the child isn’t doing well, think of asking for a Functional Behavioral Analysis to investigate the situation, or ask the team to call in an AS expert to help figure out what needs to be done. For AS experts, use the neuropsychologist who did the evaluation, an AS-savvy Educational Consultant (call AANE Children’s Services for referrals) or other professionals you know, who have demonstrated their AS expertise and experience. If you would like support in this process, call us for suggestions for Educational Advocates or special education lawyers who will guide you.

May/June

This is the time to finalize the plans for the summer and the next school year, at the end-of-year IEP meeting. To maximize chances of collaboration and a smoother meeting:

  • Read all reports ahead of time if you can. Prioritize, so that you can ensure that the most critical topics get covered in this time-limited meeting.
  • Write a short “parental concerns” and “vision statement” for the new year, and bring it to the meeting. Make sure the statement focuses on the areas of greatest concern for your child, e.g.: ability to demonstrate age-appropriate social skills, ability to maintain calm and focus so that s/he is ready and able to learn.
  • Mention all points of agreement first to get them off the day’s agenda quickly, and to start the meeting on a positive note. This leaves time for discussion and resolution of disagreements.
  • Try to bring someone with you to every IEP meeting. Another set of eyes and ears is always helpful. Have your companion keep the notes while you focus on the conversation.

After the meeting, when you get the IEP, consider:

  • Check whether the IEP has measurable goals, defined as: “What behavior do you want, under what conditions, and to what criteria.” All methods of evaluation in an IEP need to be easy for you to understand and observable. E.g.: “Having been given direct instruction in using a greeting before starting a conversation, Daniel will say the greeting first, in 4 out of 5 observed beginning conversations.”
  • Every skill needs both direct instruction and a plan to generalize the skill out into the community. Children with AS don’t learn social skills simply by being with their classmates—they need direct instruction in specific social skills, perhaps in a small group setting with a Speech Language Pathologist or other professional trained in social pragmatics. However, it’s not enough for a student to be able to demonstrate a social skill in the speech therapy room—s/he needs support and coaching to generalize that skill: to apply it in the classroom, cafeteria, afterschool club, or summer camp. Generalization is defined in a 2007 Massachusetts Department of Education Advisory as “repeated instruction and practice in multiple environments with a variety of materials and people, in order to master a single skill.” Be sure the home/school communication system for next year is set up so that all skills taught next year will be sent home, so you the parent can reinforce their practice and generalization.

Advocating for your child is an ongoing process. Take it one step at a time. AANE is offering ten parent workshops this year—including “Advocating for Your Child with AS in Public School”—and eight topic nights. Feel free to call me or Brenda Dater for referrals or advice. We are only a phone call away. Have a great year!