My Child Is Struggling in School. What Should I Do?

By Allene Grafman, M.S.
CAA Special Education Advocate
Former CT Public School Administrator, Special Education

Now that the school year is in full swing – with its new routines, hectic schedules, and oh yes, more homework – many parents are seeing signs their children are growing in multiple areas of physical, academic, social and emotional development.

For some parents, however, the new year and its new challenges have brought new, or renewed, concerns. This article is written to help parents who are concerned that their child appears to be lagging behind his/her peer group in one or more of the developmental areas, and those who may be coming to the realization that things are just ‘not right’.

The first step is to recognize the need for action, and the next step is to know how to proceed.

Common warning signs:
Experts say to look for the following behaviors in your child and note the consistency, longevity, severity and patterns of occurrence:

• Difficulty falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep
• An over dependence upon adults
• An unwillingness or resistance to attending school
• A discomfort about sharing or retelling about his/her school day when asked
• Limited attention to homework or an extreme fixation on homework with a compulsiveness for perfectionism
• An aura of sadness or aloofness
• Demanding excess attention from adults/peers
• Behavior or attention problems in the classroom
• Giving up on tasks easily
• Impulsive response to typical requests
• Crying easily (especially with an older child) Physical behaviors such as biting nails or tics
• Pretend illnesses or feeling of being sick

This list is by no means exhaustive or exclusionary. However it will help you focus on behaviors that may be associated with a school-­‐related problem that requires close attention.

Look for the following information and develop a timeline:

• Phone calls or emails from teachers relative to your child having a difficult day or incident at school
• Homework that your child had difficulty with or refused to do
• Behavior incidents or office referrals
• Difficulty with peer social relationships at school
• Inconsistent and/or poor grades on homework, tests, quizzes, classroom assignments and projects

You will want to start a file that documents this information, as it will prove a helpful reference for you and school staff if further analysis is required.

WHAT TO DO?

When behaviors, school work and teacher input indicates the need for a more detailed and targeted approach, it is time to act and become a more proactive advocate for your child.

How to advocate for your child:

• Contact your child’s teacher and schedule a conference.
• Bring your portfolio information and ask for the teacher’s input and feedback.
• Ask the teacher if your child should be considered for general education
intervention. In Connecticut this is known as Scientifically Based Researched Instruction (SRBI). Request an SRBI referral meeting.
• Familiarize yourself with the SRBI process by going on the CT State Education Dept. Website (www.sde.ct.gov)
• If your child receives SRBI, become an active participant with the school team. Attend meetings and help to set timelines for intervention.
• Work with the teacher and school psychologist to develop strategies at home and in school to provide the support your child needs.
• Work with the school social worker or school psychologist to develop a plan
on how best to communicate with your child regarding any new changes he/she will be receiving at school.
• Develop a schedule of on-­‐going progress monitoring between you and the school (through emails, phone calls or meetings).
• After a reasonable amount of time (established by the SRBI timelines) if your child is not showing adequate progress, then request a referral to the
• Planning Placement Team (PPT). The purpose of the PPT is to determine if your child requires individual specialized instruction and is eligible for special education.
• If parents feel their concerns are not being adequately addressed, they may wish to seek out private professionals to administer evaluations that can assist in determining if there is a specific cause for their child’s struggles. Such findings might include a specific learning disability, attention deficit disorder or possible intellectual disability, to name a few. If you decide to go that route, again, do your homework because there are many, many evaluators, but few who produce a written report that gives specific recommendations for how their findings should be addressed in the educational environment.
• Research the special education process by going onto the Connecticut State website. www.sde.ct..gov
• As a parent entering into the special education process, you will receive your procedural safeguards. These are laws and are specific to your legal rights
under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is critical you review and familiarize yourself with them.

The process that leads to special education can be overwhelming and confusing to parents. Understanding the PPT process and how a PPT is conducted and carried out is essential to achieving positive results.

There are many organizations and resources that parents can turn to for information and direct support in navigating through the PPT process, and facilitating effective communication between home and school.

Here is a sampling of some organizations and resources:

The U.S. Department of Education www.ed.gov

CT State Department of Education www.sde.ct.gov

The Special Education Resource Center www.ctserc.org

Center for Parent Information & Resources www.parentcenterhob.org

Special Education Network www.spednetwilton.org

The Pilot House –
Special Needs Resource Foundation www.thepilothouse.org

Some parents determine that they need more than information, and that they need direct support to help them advocate with the schools to ensure that their child is getting the help they need. In this situation, parents need to do their homework to make sure that they identify the right person – from among the many who promote themselves as advocates – to help them.

An effective advocate is a professional whose possesses the background experience, expertise and understanding of school practices, special education procedures and protocol as well as personal style of collaboration and open- mindedness, to coordinate with a school team and work collectively on behalf of the child.

As a parent, you know your child best. Often it is your instinct that drives you to make the decisions you do on a daily basis. Don’t ignore these basic signs. It is the intent of this article to give you the impetus to move ahead by alerting you to the warning signs and establishing clearly the next steps for an action-based plan. You will then become the advocate you need to be for your child.

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Sometimes Differences Just Don’t Matter !

By Jennifer Theriault, MSW, LCSW

I don’t even really like Halloween.

I’ve been known to bribe my kids with bags full of candy if they will agree to stay home.  I’m not sure when I became such a killjoy, but it definitely didn’t help when trick or treating began to involve maneuvering a wheel chair up and down dark, crowded sidewalks filled with screaming kids.  It wasn’t fun for anyone in my family.

My husband would be swearing under his breath while huffing and puffing as he tried to get our son Jack’s wheelchair up stairs to people’s front doors.  I would be angry and admonishing Jack’s brother and sister for their impatience, frustrated with their complaints about how slowly we were going and how they couldn’t keep up with their friends.  Simultaneously, I was riddled with guilt because like them, I was feeling impatient and angry as well.  And then there was Jack, who actually hates candy, startles at loud noises, can’t say trick or treat, and doesn’t like masks or costumes that make his limited movement that much more restricted.  There was nothing “spooktacular” about this holiday as far as we were concerned!

About four years ago that all changed.  We began designing costumes around Jack’s wheelchair rather than shoving him into a costume, that frankly, nobody could even see in his wheelchair.  The first year he was a soldier and his chair a tank; the next year he was a firefighter and his chair a fire truck; last year he was a pirate and his chair the ship.  This year, as a mature 9 year old, he was a DJ, and the chair his turntable.  Yep, DJ Jack was in the house!  It may have been the best costume yet!

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The other kids always go wild over Jack’s costumes and his outfits really allow him to be included in the holiday. I might even go as far as to say that he is not just included, but in fact “immersed” in the Halloween festivities.  This Halloween, as in other years, Jack led our town’s public school Halloween parade.  The smile on his face as his peers huddled around him was priceless.  School staff sent me videos and pictures chronicling the event.  Their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable.  That night, at the town Trunk or Treat I heard the same sentiments over and over: “my son/daughter can’t stop talking about how cool Jack looked in his costume”, “my son/daughter said that Jack had the best costume ever”, “mom/dad, can you ask if I can borrow Jack’s costume for next year?”  For Jack, this also meant that kids had something to talk about.  Not something scripted that an adult suggested as a way to be polite or inclusive, but something natural that they were all talking about anyway – their costumes.  “Hey DJ Jack, what are you spinning tonight?”  They weren’t asking the question because it was the “inclusive” thing to say – they really wanted to know the answer.

Our community has always been terrifically supportive, and my son Jack is fortunate to have peers and adults around him who are exceptionally kind, thoughtful, and try to be inclusive at every turn.  On more than one occasion, our hearts have been warmed as Jack’s friends and their parents have gone out of their way to accommodate Jack at birthday parties and on play dates.  The school and the entire community have never once been “exclusive”, purposefully leaving Jack out in any way.  But any parent of a child with special needs will observe that sometimes, the attempt at inclusion only goes so far – and it is not enough to make you believe that your child is really, genuinely included.  The beauty of true inclusion though, is that when it really happens, nobody feels like they are going out of their way.  The connection seems effortless, even organic, like it is not just there, but in fact, inextricably part of the experience as a whole.

Believing in the idea of inclusion has always been a struggle for me.  I have often wondered how Jack would ever really be a part of a group in a meaningful way.  In theory, inclusion seems easy enough, but in practice, it is a far more complicated endeavor.  Inclusion is not a one size fits all process.  The evolution we have gone through as a family – figuring out how to include Jack in family vacations, outings, holidays, and life in general, has, at times felt like putting a square peg into a round hole.  How could Jack be a part of an experience and really take something meaningful from it?

Inclusion is not about making those who are doing the including feel good.  It can be a by-product, but it can’t be the goal, or the real meaning is lost. If we as a family struggle with this, what does that mean for the rest of the world?  What works for us will not work for every other family whose child is in a wheelchair, has CP, or another complex disability.  There is not a magical solution, and some days, it feels like there is nothing natural or organic about the process.  The ways in which we parent, educate, socialize, and sometimes love our typical children can feel much more natural, and often, much easier.  The truth is, “special needs” can feel more like a euphemism.  After all, being disabled doesn’t feel so “special”, and let’s be honest, no parent asks for a “special” child with lots of complex needs.  It can be isolating, difficult, painful, and completely not inclusive for the child and the family system as a whole.

As a community and a family, we are not always successful in the inclusion process, but some days the stars align, and our children can know the simple joy of being part of an experience just like every typical child.  Not because they are the same as everyone else, but because their differences, sometimes just don’t matter.  This has been my experience with Halloween.

For me, and I think for many other people, Jack’s wheelchair always serves as a concrete reminder of the barriers that stand between him and the rest of the world.  On Halloween though, nobody has to pretend that his wheelchair isn’t that reminder.  They don’t have to look past it to see what he can do.  Instead, they can embrace it because at least on this day, his chair, and who it allows him to be is enviable, admired, and in fact what prompts his inclusion.

Jennifer Theriault is a CAA Special Education Advocate.

 

 

 

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Demystifying DDS

Demystifying DDS

By Jill Chuckas, MSW
CAA Special Education Advocate

Well, perhaps not completely, but hopefully it won’t feel quite as overwhelming after you are done reading!  As advocates, we work with families at all stages of their child’s learning needs.  Some families come to us while still in the birth to three system, while others come to us when their child is in high school.  Part of our role is to connect families to services that will support their child throughout the life span.  And, DDS is one of the agencies that we frequently encourage our families to investigate.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop led by the program managers for DDS in my area. There was a wealth of information shared.  Will do my best in the paragraphs that follow to share some of what I learned.

The Department of Developmental Services has the third largest budget in the state and is not considered an entitlement agency (which basically means that the current level of funding, or funding at all, may not always be available).  Sadly, the Department of Corrections has a higher budget, but that is a post for another time.  There are two divisions that offer services for families.  The Division for Autism Services has been in existence for just over 5 years and has very limited resources.  Currently, there are approximately 70 individuals serviced by this unit and over 200 people on the waiting list.  To apply for support in this division, an individual must have an IQ of over 70 and a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.  The second unit (and primary wing of DDS) serves individuals with an intellectual disability, which is defined as a person having an IQ of 70 or under.

All families with children who meet one of these two criteria should apply, as soon as possible, for DDS services.  There are many reasons for this – and they often are not clear based on the knowledge that funding is limited and waiting lists are long.  One of the more critical reasons for applying – and becoming eligible for DDS services – is the large number of connected resources it opens up to families and individuals.  From behavioral and clinical supports, to job training, to respite services, to temporary family assistance, to educational advisors, to a friendly voice on the phone who can help you figure out who can help, DDS has a wealth of resources that a DDS eligible individual can have access to.  While there is a “legally liable relative” rule for children under the age of 18, there are many non-income based services available as well as some services (such as respite care) that have small fees for access attached.

In order to apply for DDS services, one will need a current psychological evaluation that has a cognitive profile, adaptive functioning and, if applying for the Autism Division services, a current diagnosis of Autism with evaluation data that includes the ADOS, the GARS and/or the Gillian.  A current IEP is also requested and any evaluative data that would be helpful to determine if an individual is eligible.  Currently in CT, reviews are taking about 2 months – if all paperwork is in order.  It is recommended to make a duplicate copy of every document that is submitted and every form that is completed.  Applications can be found here:  http://www.ct.gov/dds/cwp/view.asp?a=2039&q=533014.

What if you send everything in and you are denied?   Appeal, appeal, appeal.  Families have told us in the past that their child was not made eligible for one reason or another.  Unfortunately, this is fairly common and staff recommend that one file an immediate appeal.  A hearing will be scheduled with an impartial hearing officer – no, this is not due process folks!  At the hearing, you will have the opportunity to present your documents to the hearing officer and share why you feel your child should be eligible for DDS services and supports.  Do bring copies of all the documents you gave to DDS for review and any new documents.  Do bring your child to this hearing.  Even if your child can only tolerate being in the hearing for a few minutes, often that visual aspect to the hearing will be enough for the hearing officer to rule that your child should be made eligible for DDS services.

Once eligible, the individual’s case will be sent to the regional office liason and a letter will be generated sharing information.  You will then have access to the helpline for questions and information about services.  Do note that if your child is made eligible prior to the age of 8, at age eight, a letter will be sent to the family requesting additional documents to confirm eligibility.  The vast majority of services will begin to kick in when a person is reaching the transition years (age 18+).  Prior to turning 18, a letter will be sent out and case managers are assigned that will work with the family on transition needs.  From that point on, levels of need will be looked at annually to see the types of assistance that may be needed by the individual.  This also accesses the level of funding and services that are made available to that individual.

Also around this time, both Medicaid and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) may come into the picture.  An individual who receives direct DDS support from age 21 on, must be Medicaid eligible.   Prior to the age of 21, a child may or may not be eligible for Medicaid.  Many children may be on their families’ private insurance plan, making them not Medicaid eligible, and can still receive non income based services.  But, once they turn 21, they would need to apply and be made eligible for Medicaid.  Similar circumstances exist for SSI.  It will be important for family members to speak directly with their case manager (again, one should be assigned around the child’s eighteenth birthday) and ask for assistance with the Medicaid and SSI process.  They are available to help families complete and review all necessary forms.

An interesting fact – and take away from the workshop – was that many people were not applying for the autism specific division due to the reportedly long waiting period prior to services being received – estimated at 4 years.  The presenters encouraged everyone who had a child who may be eligible for this division to apply as soon as possible.  Currently, they are working with legislators to make more funding available for this unit, but with such a small number on the waiting list (only about 200 people), the feedback has been that there is not a need.  While some may feel that it is not worth their energy to apply for a service that may take years to be received, it is important to note that sheer numbers often translates into political pressure.  A secondary aspect that many forget is that DDS is a life long agency.  Meaning, that once eligible (except for children under 8 who need additional documentation submitted at age 8), one is always eligible.  Your child may not need these services now, but he/she may need them as an adult.  Better to have everything in order than never apply.

CAA is in the process of making a DDS binder filled with materials from the workshop that will be available for CAA families to look through, make copies from and access when meeting with their advocate.  There is just so much information that it would be impossible to share it all here.  The DDS website (www.ct.gov/dds) also appears to be fairly user friendly, so do access it frequently.  The presenters assured us that folks will be available to answer questions and even help fill out forms if needed!  Good luck and apply today!

 

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CMT Results Are On The Way; What You Need To Know Now

 

CMT Photo

 

 

By Noreen J. O’Mahoney, C.S.W. S.D.A                                                                               Director, Collaborative Advocacy Associates

The CMTs are given every spring and they are often a source of anxiety, concern and questions for many students and their families. This is especially true for students with learning differences and disabilities. While CMTs are just one indicator of your child’s progress compared not only to themselves year over year, it also gives you valuable information regarding their progress alongside their peers. If those results haven’t arrived already they will shortly, so here’s what you need to know now.

Here’s the official description of the objective behind them:

The Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) is the standard assessment administered to students in Grades 3 through 8. Students are assessed in the content areas of reading, mathematics, writing and science (Grades 5 and 8). Reports of individual student achievement relative to performance standards in each of these content areas are provided to the school districts and parents/guardians of each student tested. The CMT provides information about achievement that is used for many purposes including:

  • setting high expectations and standards for student achievement;
  • testing a comprehensive range of academic skills;
  • disseminating useful test achievement information about students, schools and districts;
  • identifying students in need of intervention;
  • assessing equitable educational opportunities; and
  • monitoring student progress in Grades 3 through 8 over time.

There are options regarding the type of CMT your student can take, including a Modified version known as the MAS, or if necessary a CMT checklist can be completed by your child’s teacher. A decision about what version your child will take is made at the annual review PPT each year and noted on your child’s IEP.

Today, this high stakes testing and the subsequent results are under scrutiny and review. The State is considering finding an alternative to the CMTs in the years ahead but for now we have these as a guidepost for assessing student’s skills across the state.

While many of us believe it is not give as individualized a picture of your child as achieved through one to one testing, it certainly is a powerful indicator and the results each fall should be reviewed carefully.

We advise that you review the results you will be receiving this month and note any concerns about your child’s progress. Each of the areas of concern/weaknesses are indicated on the scoring sheets. The back page of your child’s report compares their scores to average scores for students within your district and statewide. It also has a bar graph of your child’s progress year over year.

Any areas of concern should be addressed as part of your child’s general education plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the identified areas are not being remediated, be sure to discuss these areas of weakness with your child’s teacher, and/or your advocate. If you have concerns after reviewing the results and your child’s program, please contact us ASAP so we can help you be sure each area of concern is being appropriately addressed.

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Frequently Asked Questions: What to do if I’m unsatisfied with my child’s progress with special education services?

Frequently_Asked_Questions_QUESTION:
What do I do if I’m unsatisfied with my child’s progress with special education services?

ANSWER:
If you are not satisfied with your child’s progress with their special education program, you should first bring your concerns to the school team through calling a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. The importance of having an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with goals and objectives tied to measurable data is that you have some way to determine if your child is making progress, or not. The PPT team needs to determine why the child is not making progress: are the right services being provided, or should different ones be used?; would increasing the frequency of services produce a different result?; is the environment in which the child is receiving services a factor in their lack of progress?; would a different setting make a difference?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) set forth that parents should be full partners in the PPT process. The challenge is that understanding how to address the above questions requires specialized knowledge that most parents do not have, which prevents them from adequately fulfilling that role. There is also the emotion associated with having a child with disabilities and trying to navigate a complicated, detail-intensive process that can easily get overwhelming.

Which is why many parents do what they and others routinely do when they need specialized knowledge and they don’t have the time or ability to develop it for themselves: they bring in an expert (such as a special education advocate) to analyze the situation and help them understand whether the child’s IEP is working, and if not, what can be done to assure that the IEP is truly meeting the child’s identified special needs. Sometimes knowing what to ask for, and how to ask for it, is the key to getting the right services in place for the child.

There will be times when the parents and the school team disagree about what the IEP should provide for the child. In those cases, there is a process in place where parents can request that the school mediate the issue, with the State Education Department acting as the mediator. If the issues cannot be resolved through mediation, parents have the option to file for a legal proceeding called a Due Process Hearing to have an independent hearing officer determine if the school has abided by special education law in their treatment of the child.

If a child is on a 504 Plan and the child is not making appropriate progress, there is a different process for determining if the school has abided by the law in their treatment of a child which involves the federal Office of Civil Rights, because services under 504 are provided under a different federal law which was designed to prevent people with disabilities from being denied access to educational supports and services.

 

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Building an Effective School – Parent Team

By Allie Nicolari, MS
CAA Special Education Advocate

The beginning of the school year is a perfect time to foster that magical year you have dreamed about.
Actually there is no “magic” to accomplish this but you must be focused, purposeful and aware of the direction you want to take. Research indicates that a positive parent-school relationship contributes to your child’s academic and social progress. So let’s begin on how to establish this partnership.
There are four “T”s to teamwork that are essential in building such a relationship:

The “T”s to Teamwork

TALK: Put your “money where your mouth is” so they say. Talk to your child’s teachers and team members. This builds mutual respect, open communication and a feeling of joint responsibility. You know your child best so let the school personnel know what your child’s strengths, interests, weaknesses, fears and behaviors are like. If the teacher has not already asked for this, then you can send a “Getting To Know My Child” letter. Let the school know you want to be involved but not intrusive. Ask the school how best to communicate on a regular basis and who should that communication be directed to. Talk to your school’s Principal and other key educators to make them aware of your desire to participate and assist whenever possible.

TOGETHER:  You are not in this alone; communicate! Utilize the expertise of your school’s staff including related service providers such as school psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists and special educators. Positive outcomes are achieved when families and schools work together to achieve mutual goals set for your child. Together you can share information that will be important and helpful to move your child successfully through the school year. Sometimes it’s the little bits of information that make the largest impact. Don’t be afraid of sharing! A two-way communication is necessary and must be on-going.

TIME:  Yes, time is of essence. Time is always not enough. However, your child is your most precious gift so time is crucial. In order to have meaningful conversations with school personnel, there must be sufficient time allocated for meetings and conferences. Give yourself the time to accomplish this through scheduling ahead and creative planning. If you have a team meeting or Pupil Planning Placement Team (PPT) meeting, inform the school in advance what time frame you are expecting to allocate to accomplish the goals of the meeting. Providing them with a proposed agenda helps to facilitate the meeting and allows the school team to come prepared with the appropriate materials in order to use the time most efficiently. If you anticipate on having consistent meetings throughout the school year, establish the times well in advance to give everyone including yourself ample notice for preparation.

TRUST:  “Easier said than done,” you may be saying. There are no guarantees, but the potential for trust is much more obtainable if you follow the above “T’s. Talking, Together communication and Time management all contribute to a parent school partnership embedded in mutual respect, collaborative decision-making and responsibility and shared ownership. All of these factors combine to build a relationship fueled by trust. In establishing a positive partnership, your child will sense your satisfaction and he/she can then begin to trust his teachers because you do. Research tells us that when your child feels good about school, trusts his teachers and develops a feeling of a positive school climate; then academic, social and emotional progress is more likely to be achieved.

You are now in the “driver’s seat.” You have the tools to make this year successful for you and your child. The “magic” is within you to be empowered and to accomplish what you want and need to do. Effective partnerships just don’t happen; they are built together with a purpose and a mutual understanding. Here’s to a productive and collaborative school year!

Ms. Nicolari is a former special education teacher and public school administrator for special education with more than 35 years of experience, who now, as a special education advocate, continues to devote herself to helping children with special needs ensure they are getting the services they need from the public schools.

 

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Back to School: The start of a successful school year begins with…….

I was raised by teachers.  My dad was a classroom teacher and taught both 5th and 6th grades for over 38 years.  My mom went back to school when I was in high school for education and proceeded to be a special education teacher – primarily in a resource room – for 25 years.  To say that “Back to School” was an event in my household growing up would be an understatement.  That phrase always held – and continues to hold – incredible meaning for me.  Education was important, meaningful and expected to be held in high esteem.  School came first.

This year, I have been watching the back to school pictures and comments on facebook.  Since mid-August, there have been smiling faces, new clothes, brightly colored backpacks and lots – I do mean lots – of interesting comments on the start of the school year.  The vast majority have been sharing mixed emotions of children getting a year older, gaining independence, and excitement for new starts.  But, there have been just as many comments laced with fear and trepidation over challenges that their children will face this year.  Will their teacher like them?  Will they like their teacher?  Will they have friends in the class?  Will they fit in?  Will they learn this year?  Will this year be as hard as past years?  How can I help my child in school?

As a special education advocate, a huge part of my job is helping parents to join with their school team in an effective and collaborative way.  Sounds nice and easy, but it isn’t always so cut and dry.  Education has a language all of its own.  And, for many families, that language can feel intimidating and overwhelming.  And, if you happen to have a child with any special learning needs, there is often so much information to stay on top of, so many things to follow up on and so much additional time, effort, energy and perseverance that has to be done in order to help your child learn.  It is exhausting, to say the least, and most certainly a full time job.  Juggle that with responsibilities to work, home, other children, family, spouses, etc.  Well, it’s a lot.

One of the best ways to stay on top of everything at school is to join with your school team.  Particularly if your child has special learning needs, it is critically important to get to know the folks in your child’s school.  This doesn’t mean that you need to volunteer for 10 hours per week or memorize everyone’s name.  But, it does mean that you need to reach out to those that will come into regular contact with your kids.

One thing that I always encourage my families to do is to write an email to the classroom teacher – and any other support staff including, but not limited to, special education teacher, social worker, school psychologist, PE teacher, Art & music teachers, speech/language pathologist – sharing your child’s learning needs at the start of the school year.  This would include strengths and weaknesses, things that work (or don’t work) behaviorally, worries that you have for your child, hopes that you have for the upcoming year – basically, whatever information that you feel will be helpful for the school team to know.  If your child has an IEP (individualized Educational Program), it is also very helpful to ask for a team meeting in the first month of school.  Bring your IEP to that team meeting and ask who is working on what goals and delivering each type of instruction.  Ask your team for regular updates on your child’s progress.  Be it one time per week or one time per month – however frequently that you need to be informed of how things are going.  And, if it feels as though it’s not going so well, get in touch with the team sooner rather than later.

Another tip to do from the start of the school year is to ask pointed questions.  If reading is an issue, ask what DRA level your child is currently being instructed at, ask where he/she may be getting stuck and any strategies at home that you can do to reinforce the teaching in the classroom.  Ask for your child’s daily and weekly schedule.  This is particularly helpful if your child sees a number of different service providers throughout the day.  Double check the IEP to make sure that your child’s goals and objectives are data driven.  If they are, ask that baseline data be sent home in order to track progress more readily.

The primary goal in all of this is to be informed.  Know what is going on so that you can resolve issues before they become problems.  Setting up a strong working relationship with your child’s team from the start of the school year is a key ingredient to a successful year.  This is not to say that problems won’t come up – they will.  But, you will be better prepared to deal with them.   And hopefully, at the end of the school year, the answers to all those back to school questions will bring a smile to your face – and your child’s!  Always know that if problems do show up, your CAA advocate is there by your side to help support you.

Jill Chuckas, MSW
Special Education Advocate

Helpful take away ~  Back to School checklist:

  • Emails to teachers with child’s learning strengths/weaknesses
  • Ask for service schedule
  • Check IEP service hours against schedule
  • Check to see that goals/objectives are data driven
  • Ask for baseline data to be sent home by end of September
  • Ask for regular communication – figure out with team if weekly, bi-weekly, monthly
  • Check to see when the annual review and triennial review dates are –contact CAA advocate at least a month prior to review date to prep for the meeting
  • Ask any clarifying questions on CMT scores (more to come on this topic soon)
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Former Public School Administrator for Special Education Joins CAA as a Special Education Advocate

Collaborative Advocacy™ Associates (CAA), a group of professionals providing Connecticut families with educational advocacy services in support of children with special learning needs, announces that Allene Nicolari, MS, a former school administrator for special education, has joined the firm as a special education advocate.

In this role, Ms. Nicolari will help parents of children diagnosed with a wide range of special learning needs to work with their school districts to ensure that appropriate educational and support services are in place to meet their particular special needs, such as: autism spectrum disorders; learning, speech and language, and developmental disabilities; ADD/ADHD; and emotional challenges, such as school phobia and anxiety, and with managing transitions at all stages of a child’s educational career.

Ms. Nicolari comes to CAA with over 35 years’ experience serving the needs of this vulnerable population as a special education teacher and school administrator.

“Joining CAA is a natural progression for me,” Nicolari stated. “The firm’s commitment to help children with special learning needs gain access to educational opportunities dovetails with my lifelong commitment to this population. My background and experiences in special education practices and procedures will serve to benefit the families I work with. I am thrilled to join such a respected team of individuals.”

Noreen J. O’Mahoney, C.S.W., S.D.A., founder and director of CAA, said: “In the more than 10 years since our founding, we have seen the population of families with children who have special needs continue to grow exponentially. We’ve also seen first-hand that both parents and school districts need help determining how to effectively serve these youngsters so that they receive the education they deserve. Allene’s knowledge and understanding of the special education system and how to get things done within it will prove invaluable in helping families work more successfully with their school districts.”

Most recently, Ms. Nicolari served as Coordinator of Special Education for Guilford, CT Public Schools for the pre-school and elementary levels, after having served ten years collectively as the Coordinator of Special Education for Guilford High School and Guilford middle schools, following many years as a special education teacher at the middle school level.

Over the years, she has been involved in the development, implementation and administration of all aspects of Guilford’s special education programs. In her most recent role, she was instrumental in developing Guilford’s program for serving children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her administrative responsibilities extended from pre-school through high school and transition into adult life thus encompassing the entire educational experience for the child. Ms. Nicolari also was very involved with community life through her participation on the Board of Directors for SARAH and Guilford Youth and Family Services.

Ms. Nicolari graduated from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education and Psychology, and earned her Master’s degree in Special Education and Learning Disabilities from Southern Connecticut State University. She has also completed the advanced certification program in Educational Leadership and Supervision, and Special Education Consultation, from Southern Connecticut State University.

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: IEP Implementation

QUESTION: What can I do to make sure my child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)  is being implemented?

ANSWER: Trust, with Verification.

That was President Ronald Reagan’s approach to working with the Soviet Union prior to the end of the Cold War: he was willing to trust that the Soviets would do what they said they would do, but he wanted to verify it just the same.

A similar approach can be effective in ensuring that your child’s IEP is being implemented. The key is to request that your child’s IEP Evaluation Procedure be the use of Pre- and Post- Baseline Data.  With this in place, here is a brief overview of the steps you can take to do so.

1)      Send a written request to school for the baseline data from September on all of your child’s goals and objectives in the IEP. Along with this, you want to request the progress monitoring data for November . With both sets of numbers, you will be able to compare the data to assess if your child is making progress.

2)      Make a written request to school for a copy of your child’s daily schedule. Ask that this include the following information regarding the delivery of services: a) what the time of day they were delivered, and the length of service time;  b) who delivered the services; c) how were services delivered (1- to-1, small or large group); and d) where were the services delivered (classroom, or resource room, etc.).  With this information, you can now compare it to Page 11 of your child’s IEP to make sure it matches the amount and delivery criteria for his/her services.

3)      Check Page 8 of your child’s IEP for the list of Accommodations and Modifications. Make a simple bullet list of the ones your child is supposed to be receiving and review the list with your child. You want to do two things: 1) Make sure they are aware of the ones they are supposed to be getting; 2) Have them show you proof that they are receiving that accommodation (i.e. if your child is supposed to get copies of class notes from the teacher, have them show you what they are getting). If you find they are not getting one or more of the Accommodations & Modifications listed in the IEP, you may want to schedule a Team Meeting, or individual teacher meetings  to discuss and resolve.

4)      Work with your child’s team to design a Daily Log of your child’s program.  Components should include a column listing the academic and related services; another for what was the focus that day; another for follow-up that should be done at home.  Place these sheets in a binder that can be sent between school and home. These Daily Logs facilitate information sharing and communication with your child what happened in their day.

It does take some work on your part to make sure the school is doing what it is supposed to do, but the result should be that your child will have the opportunity to make the progress the IEP is supposed to make possible.

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Inclusion: “Wonderful and Truly Possible!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new section, we’d like to invite commentary from parents of children with special needs who may have something positive, uplifting or encouraging to share with other parents who are on the same journey: Raising a child with special needs.

Inclusion is a hot topic in the world of special needs.  School administrators, teachers, therapists, behaviorists, and parents often spend countless hours developing and implementing programs designed to include children with special needs into the world of their typically developing peers.  Just as no two children (even ones with the same diagnosis) are the same, inclusion is not one size fits all.  There are no easy solutions or rigid steps to follow to make inclusion successful. Like the process of human development, inclusion is fluid and continually changing.  It is ongoing and influenced by the people, surroundings, and the individual’s needs, abilities, and limitations.

I have never met a parent of a child with special needs that hasn’t worried about inclusion in school, at home, and in all social situations.  How will my child be perceived? Will he or she be accepted?  Understood? Will they ever really be a part of a group?  The questions are endless.  When inclusion does work, the outcome can be meaningful not only for the identified child, but also for the peers and adults that are lucky enough to be a part of the process.  As a parent of a child with cerebral palsy and professionally as an advocate, I have fought tirelessly to help my son, Jack, to be as fully included as possible in all areas of his life.   I’d like to share with you an example of how wonderful inclusion can be, and how truly possible it really is!

I took Jack to a birthday party for a child in his 1st grade class.  It was at the Fairfield Sportsplex.  This is typically a recipe for disaster for Jack because this type of party tends to be noisy, chaotic, and overwhelming.  I almost always decline these invitations because Jack ends up crying, I end up sweating, miserable, and apologizing for the disruption, the parent of the child having the party feels bad, and nobody is ends up happy!  I was ready to decline this party as well but I met the mother of the birthday boy a few weeks prior to the party, and before I could decline she told me how important it was to her son that his Jack be able to attend and participate at the party. . They had even hired an extra “coach” in anticipation that Jack could use an extra set of hands to get the help he needed and enjoy the parties activities.  I couldn’t say no – how thoughtful to be thinking of Jack’s needs while planning their son’s party?

We arrived 15 min. late to the party and about 20 other children were already deeply engrossed in the party activities.  The mother greeted me warmly despite having only met me once, and offered to help me et jack situated.  The birthday boy quietly but excitedly got the attention of the coach to explain that his friend Jack had arrived and that Jack didn’t like loud noises.  The coach reminded all the kids of this and asked that they all try not to scream.  He asked them to greet Jack by saying “hi” in quiet voices.  All at once they quietly said “hi Jack”.  The coach went back to the activity at hand, but again, politely, the birthday boy got the coaches attention.  He whispered something I couldn’t hear, and the coach asked all the kids to line up.  As I began to follow his directions and line up w/Jack, the coach stopped me and asked me to stay where we were because the birthday boy wanted everyone to “high five” Jack.  I was touched – I knew that the “high five” was Jack’s way of greeting his peers in school.  One by one every child stood in line and patiently waited for a turn to “high five” Jack.  Each child said and did what I knew they had been taught in school – “hi Jack, can I have a high five?” And then they waited…and Jack gave high fives!  When Jack looked around the room and appeared distracted, the kids naturally and effortlessly said “hey Jack, look at me”.  Then again, they waited.  When he looked, they repeated the same question “can I have a high five?”

I choked back tears and my heart truly felt like it would burst.  I was self-conscious at first because I didn’t want to take away from the birthday celebration.  After all, this day was not about Jack.  But in allowing this experience to unfold, I realized the beauty of the fact that this lovely experience was not Jack’s alone.  The 5 minutes it took to welcome Jack and include him did no take away from the party or bother any of the kids.  Not one child looked rushed or concerned that they were losing out on valuable “party time”.  This was not a burden, it was just a process that was being played out with their friend Jack.

The birthday boy is a remarkable child.  Really, just emotionally and socially attuned in a very profound way.  Clearly his parents are remarkable as well.  However, I am heartened to realize that this is not a rarity.  In past years at school there have been a few kids who really took to Jack.  This year however, most of the kids, not just a few, have begun to interact and include Jack in very real ways.  This is becoming the norm, and these kids are learning this from Jack’s team ! Each and every person on Jack’s team sees him as a communicator and a valuable member of his community.  His therapists and teacher have undoubtedly conveyed this positive message to the students and it is resonating in profound ways!

I recently learned that schedules are made by Jack’s teacher because the kids fight over who gets to be his partner, or push his wheelchair, or sit next to him in class. There is nothing that puts a smile on my face more than knowing that he is valuable and desired by others in this way!  I really believe that kids want to be inclusive; they just need to be given the tools and the opportunity to do it.  A truly inclusive community is one that is predicated on reciprocity between all participants, not just mere tolerance.  In his own way, Jack is an active participant, not only an observer in the world.  It is truly a gift to know that he is an integral part of his community and my hope is that as he grows, so too will his ties to this and other communities as well.

By  Jennifer Theriualt

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