Sunday, October 18, 2009

When Parents & Schools Disagree

By Ruth Heitin, Ph.D., Educational Consultant

I often tell my clients that if my own parents were alive, they would never understand what I do for a living.

I am an independent educational consultant, and as a private professional I work for parents in seeking appropriate educational services for their children. Far more often than I prefer, I disagree with the schools - something my parents and their generation saw as heresy.

For the past ten years, I have worked with hundreds of families of students with special needs. Every time I think I have seen the most egregious case of educational unenlightenment, another case comes along that is even more disturbing.

As a former teacher, I fully understand the challenges that teachers face. In my opinion, teaching is one of the toughest and most important jobs of all. I have also sat on the other side of the school conference table as a parent. Now, as an educational consultant, I am able to see both viewpoints. And, what I have learned over the past ten years is that while both parents and schools want what is best for children, their constraints and their perspectives will always differ.

What is important to know is that when parents and schools disagree, the ways that they resolve their disagreements depend upon the issues. Federal laws and regulations provide a framework for addressing the needs of special education students. When a child is not suspected of or diagnosed with a disability, the local school district has the right to govern its own programs. Dealing with general education requires politics, dealing with special education requires knowledge of the laws.

The following are some of the ways in which parents and schools disagree when a child is suspected of a disability with suggestions as to how to address these.

Does the student have an educationally-related disability?

Does the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational performance?

Does the child require special education services?

Are the special education services effective?

Does the student have an educationally-related disability?

In my experience, it is a parent's natural inclination to believe that all is right with his/her child. For parents to get to the point of believing that their child could have some kind of problem, they have to have done some serious reflection and data gathering on their own. Once a parent comes to the point of concern that a disability exists, it is incumbent upon the school professionals to take those parents' concerns very seriously.

However, it is also the natural inclination for schools to seek some outside explanation for a child's problems. Often they indulge in believing that the nature of the problem is a simple matter within the parents' control.

The only way to determine if a disability exists with a child is through comprehensive evaluation. The first step in this process is for the parents and school professional to meet to discuss the child in a meeting of professionals called a Child Study Committee or the like, depending upon the school district.

Schools often offer first to try a variety of interventions before doing evaluation, which is tantamount to a trial-and-error method of addressing a child's problems. Why would we try to address a problem without understanding it first? The role of this committee is to ask only if, based on the information available through their normal procedures, there is justification for further evaluation of the child. The school cannot ask parents to gather more information for them first nor can the school make a determination of eligibility for special education at that time; that is the role of another committee.

If the school does agree to do the evaluation, it is important for parents to understand the limitations of any school system in their evaluation.

One of the reasons that I left the school system was to have the opportunity to assess children in the way that I knew was necessary. School employees have little control over the time and the materials at their disposal in order to do evaluations. No matter how good a school professional is at evaluation, it is unlikely that he/she can perform the job as well as someone who is equally qualified in private practice. Private assessments are expensive because of the time that they require, but parents should know that the investment is, in my opinion, generally a wise one.

It is also important for parents to know that whoever does the evaluation is the one who will take the lead in determining the child's needs. The school personnel who do this are too often the same ones who will have to serve the child in their already-too-busy schedules. Having a private evaluator assess the child allows independent determination of the child's issues and needs without any bureaucratic constraints.

Of course, if the school system does the evaluation, and the parents question the results or the methods, they can seek an Independent Educational Evaluation at the school's expense. The down side of this is that it makes an already-protracted evaluation period even longer, requiring months before a child's needs can be appropriately understood and addressed.

Once evaluation is completed the determination can be made as to whether or not a child has a disability. Federal law does not specify the criteria for determining disabilities, that is left to the local school district. And, in my experience, the many local school districts in our area all have different criteria for determining eligibility for special education.

I have spent the past ten years helping parents in the eligibility process, and I can relate hundreds of horror stories about the process. For example, schools have found children not to be learning disabled based on the fact that they demonstrate no processing deficits, but the school has not effectively assessed the processing skills. This is tantamount to saying that a child does not have strep throat, despite all the symptoms, when one has not done a culture. Naturally, I believe that having an educational consultant assist you through the eligibility process for special education is a wise decision.

When the determination is made as to whether a disability exists, it is appropriate to look at this through all appropriate definitions. For school children, two laws address special needs - The Individuals with Disability Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

While both federal acts allow provision of special education services, practicality has dictated otherwise. IDEA has federal money attached to it, giving schools some reimbursement for serving special needs children, while Section 504 does not. Any child who is eligible for services under IDEA automatically is eligible under Section 504, but not the reverse. Primarily in practice today, the difference is that those who require special education services are eligible under IDEA while those who require only classroom accommodations rather are eligible under Section 504.

A key point in eligibility is whether the disability has an impact on educational performance and how. For example, some students with asthma are able to control it well while others require special accommodations when it comes to exercise and stress. Only in the latter case would it be necessary to identify the child as disabled educationally.

An important note here is that identifying disabilities in young children presents special challenges that the schools are often unable to manage.

Traditional achievement testing is insensitive with young children for a very good reason. Since achievement is the product of what a child has been taught and how much he/she has learned from that, and since formal instruction is limited in young children, it is very difficult to identify underachievement. In testing young children, information processing testing in areas such as phonemic awareness and rapid naming, for examples, must be relied upon to identify learning disabilities. Schools frequently fail to test these areas and instead rely upon the ineffective traditional test measures in measuring learning issues.

When schools come to the conclusion that a child does not have a disability, they often justify their conclusion by espousing that they do not want to label the child. This presumes that labeling a child is a stigma or a negative factor in some way.

Schools never admit that they are being advised to limit the numbers of students being eligible, but I believe they are. What they fail to see too often is that if one is going to err, it is better to give services than not and miss valuable educational opportunities that cannot be regained.

Does the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational performance?

This is often a contentious area of disagreement between parents and schools. There is no federal definition of educational impact. Nationally, court cases continue to address the question of educational impact of a disability.

In my experience, schools will readily admit educational impact if a student's grades are failing or if the child's disability presents a challenge to them. However, in cases where a child's disability affects them in less conspicuous ways, as is often the case with homework difficulties, schools too often deny any educational impact. However, as long as schools demand homework, they cannot ignore the parents' reports about how the disability affects homework time.

Similarly, when the educational impact is emotionally-related, or even medically-related, schools tend to deny what they cannot see. Parents need to document the impact of the disability as well as they can to offer undeniable evidence.

Keep charts of the time spent on homework or the number of headaches a child experiences. Document the help that the child requires in doing homework. It is harder to ignore data than narrative.

Does the child require special education services?

This question presents a difficult dilemma for the school system. The recent trend to educate all children in the general education classroom has too frequently resulted, in my opinion, in a watered-down system of offering specialized support for children.

Teachers and administrators too often seem to feel that if they admit that a child needs specialized instruction they are admitting their own failure. While it is certainly advantageous for some children to remain in the general education classroom for support, for others it denies them the opportunity for small group and specialized instruction that they need.

Historically, we have always known that children with special needs require specialized instruction, and the earlier the better. Recent research in learning disabilities, however, has articulated this even further.

Children with reading disabilities respond best to systematic, intensive, and specialized instruction. The window of opportunity for best results is to begin such programming before the child reaches his/her ninth birthday. After that, the prognosis for ameliorating the reading disability becomes less optimistic.

Are the special education services effective?

In 1997, when IDEA was reauthorized, an important change was implemented in which schools were required to evaluate special education students' progress as often as they did the progress of general education students. IDEA has long required that progress be evaluated in observable and measurable ways.

I cannot begin to count the number of times that a student's progress is merely observed rather than measured in any way. Independent assessment, school standardized testing, state assessment measures and observational charts are all means of evaluating and measuring progress.

My advice to parents who think that their children are not making sufficient progress: Don't stop in your efforts to improve your child's progress.

Failure to make appropriate progress has devastating and cumulative ramifications. This year's teacher will not be around to see the implications over time, but parents certainly will be.

Transition Planning For The Child With High Functioning Autism

By Louis H. Geigerman, President
National ARD/IEP Advocates

In my special education advocacy practice I represent families with children from ages 3 to 21. In addition, I know a number of adults in the spectrum all the way to their early 60’s. Statistics have shown that only about 3% of individuals in the spectrum are able to live independently and are self supporting. If you have a child in elementary school, the focus on skill acquisition is totally different than the child in high school. But both scenarios should have the same goal in common which is preparing students for further education, employment and independent living. For instance, should we spend an inordinate amount of time coloring the interior of a circle when a student’s communication or social needs are significantly deficient? The key to getting your child in the 3% that are independent is to understand what skills that they will need to master when living alone.

A few ideas to consider:

When the child is an early teen, teach them to schedule their own doctor appointments.

Open a checking account as early as possible to help them understand money management by balancing checkbooks and living within their means.

Have them start cooking simple meals.

Help them to understand about food spoilage and the importance of cleaning out refrigerators.

By thinking ahead, we can insure better outcomes for our kids.

Educational Toys That Help Kids Grow

By Dee Carrick
Owner of OZMO - The fun store for Autism

Most parents try to give their children the best start in life they can. They feed

them carrots and apples for snacks, keep track of their school performance, and also try to buy educational toys. That is wonderful!

So what IS an Educational Toy?

Is it one that seems kind of boring but could teach them some facts?

Is it one that is labeled “educational” or “early learning” on a website or in a store?

Is it one that requires interaction with an adult before a lesson can be learned?

Is it some toy that is labeled with “teaches cause and effect” or “sequencing skills” or “fine motor skill practice” or maybe even “teaches spatial orientation concepts”?

Those sound really good and official! Isn’t it always better to buy toys that teach?

In truth, though, ALL toys are educational. Every toy teaches the child

something. Check out the following list of “toys” and the things they can teach:

Anyway, you get the idea. Babies and children absorb information all the time.

(Sometimes the lessons they learn are not always the ones we want them to learn!) So don’t be too quick to think that a toy has to be labeled educational for it to be of value.

Get a variety of toys to see what they like or have talents for. Make sure they

have access to crayons, paper, puzzles, books, balls, musical toys, and some free time to experiment. Sit down with them once in a while and enjoy playing with them. Inspire them by showing them new ways to use the toys and then let them use their imagination. Encourage them with impromptu art shows, parades, and by taking pictures of their results.

Cheap plastic toy - Really inexpensive toys can break quickly

Cup in the bathtub - How to pour, pouring slowly means dribbles down the

cup, water surface stays flat

Squeezy toy - Practice in fine motor skills, sense of relaxation

Wrestling figure - How to hurt people, it is fun to hurt people

Paper and crayons - Spatial relations, color names, fine motor skills

Puzzles - Concentration, spatial relations, fine motor skills, cats lay on

them and chew them

Spinning light toy - Cause and effect, fine motor skills, if you throw it down

it will break, battery toys last longer if they go off automatically

Dirt - It smells good, it tastes bad, it turns to squishy mud if you add water,

it can grow plants

Big new educational toy- you can sit on it, it won’t work if you lose this

piece, pushing three buttons at once makes a sound that is really annoying

to mom, cause and effect…

My favorite Christmas present as a child was just a box full of colored paper, glitter, glue, sequins, stickers, etc. My daughter’s favorite was a pretty box full of squares of silky or lacey fabrics, cheap plastic bead necklaces, and garage sale hats, for dress-up. My son’s favorite was a, well… flatulence imitating toy. Boys…….

One more thing-if a toy is to be used, it must be fun. We have probably all bought a wonderful educational toy that never got used more than once. Too many educational toys just don’t have enough of the fun factor. (However, the toy may still be appropriate for a classroom where anything that isn’t a worksheet is welcomed by the students!) So be careful and make sure that the toy is appealing and fun. A toy on a shelf isn’t teaching a child much of anything.

And yes, sometimes we can buy a toy just because it looks like fun.

See more info at - The fun store for Autism

Connecting With The Almighty

Words of Inspiration By Tzvi Pearlstein, MD, FAAOS, FACS,
Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon

As a doctor, I have seen the suffering of many patients. I have also seen how trying circumstances have brought out the best in both patients themselves and in their families and loved ones.

Pain is not a new experience. I am the eldest son of a holocaust survivor. As a child I was patterned to provide my mother with joy and with joyful events after all the suffering she had witnessed as a young teenager. My awareness of this as an adult made me realize that I was not only fulfilling her need. I was also growing my own character. By helping her, I was truly also helping myself, and, as is the case when any two people share an act of kindness, was thereby elevating the entire world at the same time—acts of kindness tend to multiply and spread resulting in more kind acts.

By caring for another we can accomplish great things, not only for others, and not only for our own self improvement, but also in our connection to God. And the stronger our connection to the Almighty, the greater the benefits we receive in every aspect of our lives.

Building a foundation is always an effort and the same is true with our connection to God. Building a relationship with the Almighty is an effort and a process. It can start with, and is most easily achieved, by doing something for another human being. Each of us can and must share our own unique talents and attributes with those who have less--and doing so is not only man’s work. It is the work of the Divine. It is a partnership we share with God.

A child with any disability or challenge to overcome is indeed a special child, one who deserves great love and attention. We need to transform any pain that may arise from such a condition into constructive loving efforts. It’s about time for human beings, made in the image of God (meaning that we can and must emulate the will of God), to WAKE UP and truly emulate God.

Lend your hand. Do not be a taker. The model for what we need to do is the handshake. According to Torah (Bible) sages and authentic Kabbalah, ten fingers represents a whole. The number ten is all inclusive, comprising all human attributes. When you reach out your hand and your five fingers combine in a handshake with another’s five fingers, the result is a combined whole holy Godly unit. This is the meaning of the Hebrew greeting, “Shalom.” You and me-- together we make a united whole—Peace onto us and the world.

When you see someone in need--someone less fortunate than yourself in any realm— be ready to give a hand and elevate the world. And should that person be a widow, an orphan, or a child or adult with autism, cancer, or one of many human afflictions—give of yourself—bring kindness, love and joy into the world.

Dr. Tzvi Pearlstein practices orthopedic medicine/surgery in Coral Springs and serves as a consultant throughout Southeast Florida from Jacksonville to Miami, with a focus on preventive medicine and orthopedic surgery. Dr. Pearlstein is a graduate of PrincetonUniversity and New York University School of Medicine. The author of several published studies, Dr. Pearlstein also served as Chief Orthopedic Surgeon in the United States Air Force at Clark Air Base, Philippines, and at Andrews Air Force Base, Wash. D.C., as a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, and left his practice of orthopedic surgery in Anaheim, California in 1990 to serve as a Major during the first Gulf War. His current Book/DVD/Web Project THE ONE MINUTE STRETCH will soon be available online & in book stores. Dr. Pearlstein can be seen playing trumpet with various bands in various musical establishments in South Florida. You can reach him at his office, 954-344-0111 or 877-REHAB30.