Once a new school year isn’t quite so new, students and parents often discover new problems. The fresh routine becomes a rut. The syllabus looks as impossible as emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. The new friends turn unfriendly at the first social gaffe. And the same kids who couldn’t wait to be off on that opening day of school, now open every day by whining, “Why do I have to go?!?”
Much of this is standard “post-honeymoon” letdown and will eventually resolve itself. However, not all problems are in the “if we ignore it it’ll go away” category; and where a concern might grow serious, the best time to address it is immediately. Especially if your child may have a disability, has been diagnosed with a disability, or is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for attending school with a disability.
In today’s post, Amy Fuchs, our Program Manager at BridgingApps, shares tips on how to help special-needs children continue learning and socializing effectively as the first semester progresses.
What are the strongest positive aspects of today’s school systems?
Classrooms use technology all day long, which is really helpful for many students with disabilities. Most devices now commonly used in classrooms include built-in text-to-speech and speech-to-text, so no additional technologies are required for students to have text read aloud to them or to type using their voices. This means that, for example, a junior high student who reads below grade level could have test questions read to him privately by a device, rather than having a teacher or paraprofessional read aloud to him. Which not only saves the teacher’s time, but spares the student the embarrassment of making it obvious to everyone that he needs “extra help.” Because, let’s face it, no student wants to be singled out as “being different” from peers!
The key to taking advantage of technology is knowledge—knowing what your kids need as students, which helps you better act as their advocate and eventually teach them to advocate for themselves.
How can families best advocate for their children’s successful inclusion in learning and schoolwork?
Prioritizing goals and specific activities is important, since the most beneficial approaches vary depending on a child’s needs and abilities. Remember, having a child physically present in a room is not necessarily the same thing as successful inclusion: you need to verify that each activity can be adapted or modified so your child can participate meaningfully, and that there are opportunities for your child to work with peers. And especially that everyone is clear on where your child’s learning plan will differ from the obvious approach. Many students with disabilities find it helpful to spend a portion of meaningful time in the classroom—enough to get the initial lesson from the teacher or participate in the hands-on learning—and then practice skills in a small-group or individual setting.
Many parents complain that IEPs don’t measure up to the ideal of meeting their children’s individual needs. How can this problem be avoided?
One of the biggest snags IEPs hit is incorrect implementation. This can happen for lots of reasons. Maybe there are a lot of “moving pieces” (multiple teachers, paraprofessionals, and classrooms) in a student’s day, so it can easily happen that not everyone is fully informed about the accommodations and modifications needed in each environment. To avoid this, parents and student should be familiar with all details that affect the daily routine. For instance, if a student is supposed to have tests read aloud (“oral administration”), plan in advance how and when they will remind the teacher before test day. Often an overlooked accommodation is simply an honest mistake: teachers and school staff are human too.
If accommodations remain unimplemented after planning and reminders, request a conference with the teacher involved, and include the case manager and the special education teacher. (In many schools, the special education teacher also serves as case manager.) Explain your concerns clearly and specifically, and emphasize that you are all a team looking for win–win solutions.
Even when all is going well, do everything possible to keep lines of communication open between yourself, your child, the school’s special education staff, and the general education staff. It’s important to reinforce that this is a team effort; and it’s important that both sides of the education staff own their responsibility for serving the child appropriately.
There’s some overprotectiveness in every parental heart, but doubly so for the parent whose child has disabilities—and has been misjudged or bullied because of those disabilities. When that’s the case in your family, and some educator hints that your “reasonable accommodations” request isn’t so reasonable, it’s easy to let your mama-bear instinct flare up and to jump to the conclusion that here is one more narrow-minded, insensitive party treating your baby as a nuisance best shamed into a one-size-fits-all mold.
Natural as the impulse is, yielding to it will put you in a no-win situation. If there’s truth in what the educator says, you’ll be unable to hear it rationally. If you’re right, getting defensive will still show them your irrational side—which is an open invitation to disregard everything you say. When you go to a conference, go as a positive person, a team member, and a learner as well as a parent and advocate.
And remember, the goal is for your child not simply to have a good school year, but to learn, grow, and prepare for the next stage of life. You can work toward that goal at home as well: plan family activities related to school curricula; listen to your children; and encourage them to try new things and exercise their problem-solving skills. School days will pass, but learning is a habit that serves anyone well for life.