Positives from the 2020-2021 school year

The BIG positive message from the 2020-2021 school year is persistence pays off! I worked with many families who were persistent (and somewhat relentless) in getting their children help. Some had documented requests dating back 7 years! I am excited to tell these success stories and to demonstrate how advocates, families, and schools can work together.

First, I want to focus on the families who have children with Dyslexia. Some needed full advocacy support, while others only needed some basic training. Either way, the work was worth it! These students were tested in elementary school and they did not qualify. (Scores were not low enough, achievement was not low enough, but the parents also learned they were not specific enough.) These three families learned the importance of being specific when you suspect your child has a learning disability. Detail, in writing, exactly what you see at home and school. They gave concrete examples and some even submitted audio/video recordings of their children reading. This kind of evidence makes a difference! They also had the advantage of working with awesome school teams. School psychologists, administrators, and teachers who really listened and were there to help. I was profoundly grateful to come along side these families to coach, advocate, and support them through the process. All three qualified for IEP’s. This is a huge celebration because now they have extra-help available to them through different classes, specialized instruction with an Orton Gillingham approved program, assistance from paraprofessionals, technology tools, and other accommodations that will help them unlock their potential. I am so excited to see what their future holds!

Some of the families I had the opportunity to assist were looking for basic guidance. They knew they could handle the meeting, but wanted to be fully informed about the IEP/504 process. I love doing this! We had a few zoom meetings where I explained everything about 504’s and IEP’s. I also gave them a list of questions to ask specific to the needs of their child and important steps to follow. They did beautifully and obtained appropriate services for their children! This made me take a second look at the power of coaching and the need to EMPOWER parents. Look for more of this strategy in the future.

Next, I had the opportunity to help two children transfer to buildings where there were more resources and staff trained in their specific area of disability. These two situations were urgent and filled with emotion. I was honored to be the one to calm the waters, remind the families to stay logical and give as much evidence as possible to help the powers that be make the decision we were requesting. In the end, they were transferred, and it all worked out for the better. These kids are thriving!

Unfortunately, advocacy does not always go smoothly. I did help one family this year, who were in a particularly stressful and difficult situation. It involved the awful practice of seclusion and restraint. Without disclosing too many details, we knew the school was not prepared or trained to offer the proper supports and interventions for their child. We advocated for 6 months and were successful in all our requests with the help of an attorney. This family not only prevailed for their child but for all other differently abled children. (There is far more to this case but for the privacy of all involved I am trying to be as vague as possible.) I am relieved to report the child is doing well and I look forward to checking in on them in the future. With their new plan, I am sure I will hear about all the wonderful things they are accomplishing.

Finally, my last update is about three young people all poised to leave high school. The families knew they were just not ready to take on the real-world, so our advocacy efforts were spent on preparing for the future. One of these young people is in an amazing program for the next two years where they will receive on the job training, soft-skills, and practice independent living. They even got to start this summer doing some job shadowing and participating in a transition group. The other two are also practicing soft-skills and life-skills within the school setting. Both are getting ready to take their driver’s exams and have their first summer jobs. I cannot imagine where these three would be without these amazing learning opportunities and the advocacy efforts their parents committed to on their behalf. These students are even learning the important skill of self-advocacy! I am proud of them!

In the end, when I reflect on my role in all this change, I realized my task was simple. I helped families shape, verbalize, a document their concerns, requests, and insights about their child. They were the ones who did it all! I just offered guidance and support. I am completely humbled to be a small part of their journey. Across the State of South Dakota, parents are learning about their rights and how to obtain reasonable/appropriate services for their child. I can hear those winds of change building!
Call me to talk about how we can shift these winds your way! 605-431-3318

*Disclaimer: this post contains information about cases that took place in various districts across the State of South Dakota and across multiple grade levels. No specific district is mentioned nor should be inferred from any of the information listed above.

Honesty is the best policy…

As I spend the first few weeks of summer recharging, refocusing, and renewing I am spending a great deal of time reflecting on the school year. You know what? It was NOT easy and processing all I learned an experienced is not easy either. I am struggling sorting through the emotional labor that was this school year. From Covid restrictions, ridiculous decisions made by bureaucrats, and the amount of negativity that filled meetings, it is hard to focus on the positives. (So, bear with me if this post veers off the positivity track for a moment.) The only word that keeps coming to my mind is: challenging. This year was challenging. The start of the school year was filled with unknowns, delays, and massive implications from Covid. I urged everyone to use grace with each other because parents and staff alike were getting frustrated. Then school went back into session, and we had kids coping with the transition between online and face to face learning. It seemed like there were races to hold meetings and evaluate kids. Children were being categorized as “not low enough”, there were staff and funding shortages, and suddenly we went from feeling frustrated to feeling angry and overwhelmed. We just kept facing one challenging situation after another.

Personally, I had all this amazing training from ISEA I was excited to put into practice. I was excited to work with teams and make a difference in the life of a child. However, I found it challenging (There’s that word again!) to balance all I knew, all the love for kids I had in my heart, and my deep-rooted desire to be helpful with using this new information wisely. I never wanted it to be a weapon; or even perceived as one. Working on changing that perception was challenging. (Again, the word of the year.) I would do my best to build relationships, be kind, and be complimentary but the truth was sometimes what I said was not popular. Sometimes what I had to say was hard to hear.

Many of the families I helped this year had children who were falling severely behind, and a sense of urgency could be felt all around. They had children who were not getting the help they needed. They had children who had learning disabilities but were not being serviced. They had children whose mental health was quickly moving beyond “at-risk”. There were threats of suicide, seclusion and restraint being used when unnecessary, children who clearly could not read but still being passed along, accommodations being refused, and parent requests being ignored. These families and children needed help. Most of them, that I had the honor of advising, were successful through advocacy. They documented, they gathered data, the asked questions, they shared concerns in writing, and opened the lines of communication. We did all of this in a kind, honest, and professional manner. However, some still saw no results. Some will need to come back again next school year with more data, more evidence, and document requests in writing again. Because sometimes it takes that level of persistence to make a change. As I move forward through thoughts, plans, and establishing some resolve I will make it a point to post about my successes. If you are a family who is in this same mental state, let’s focus on the good together. Call me to vent, to process, or simply ask a question. Let’s use the summer to refocus and remind ourselves why we do such challenging work. In the meantime, stay tuned to my Facebook page for updates and all the good that is happening. We had some HUGE successes this year I cannot wait to talk about! I hope it fills your cup! 605-431-3318 inspire1learning@gmail.com inspire1learning.com

People often ask, “What is your number one piece of advocacy advice?” It is quite simple. Follow up AND follow through. These are two vastly different concepts. Doing both consistently is effective and can make a huge difference in your child’s education.

Following up is the simple step of sending an email restating questions you have asked, asking new questions for clarification, sharing information, and keeping the lines of communication open. Follow-up is self-explanatory. I am “following up” about a conversation or I am “following up” with some additional accommodations; you can follow up with all kinds of information. This type of communication strategy is positive and engaging. It is a great way for parents to stay informed and to share your input.

Following through takes “following up” a step further. It is a game changer. When used consistently, it sends the message you will do what you say you will do. You do not rely on empty threats, veiled accusations, or any other negative tactic. If I say I will research something, I do and I share my findings. If I say I will speak up about a topic, I do. If I say I have questions, I ask them. This is the one thing I wish all parents mastered early in the IEP process. Do not say, I’m getting an independent evaluation.” and then not do it. Do not say, “I will consider this placement.” and then never respond with your decision. It turns active communication into an empty threat. If you plan on referencing your rights and then not using them, the consequences fall on you. Saying, “I will write a letter to the school summarizing what went well at our meeting, what I appreciated, and areas I think we still need to work on.” is great but actually doing it, is even better! Following through establishes integrity. It creates a solid paper trail. It means you are an informed, knowledgeable parent who is to be taken seriously. It means when you say something the district knows you mean it.

Too many empty promises from parents have fostered an environment where schools believe parents will eventually give up their quest for appropriate services for their child. They know this! They will wait you out and count on the fact you will not follow-up or follow through. Until one day you do… you start doing everything in writing, you track the questions you have asked and the answers you received, you track progress and goals, you keep tabs on accommodations and class schedules, you become an empowered and engaged parent. Consistently following up and following-through will establish yourself as a formidable parent who puts their child first. You will not loose focus, you will not be deterred. You have a mission- to obtain an appropriate education for your child. I believe in you! I know you can do this! All it takes is to follow-up and follow through!

You have an IEP…. Now What?

The IEP meeting is over and months of planning, meetings, doctor’s appointments, e-mails, and phone calls have culminated into this one moment; helping your child receive an individualized education plan. It’s a great deal to take in and process. IEP meetings are long and filled with overwhelming procedures. However, having an IEP is a step in the right direction! Many families think, I have an IEP and now everything will be better. It’s NOT MAGIC! It is a start on a journey! The accommodations, interventions, and modifications your child needs are now in writing in a legal document. Here are 5 things you need to do to stay on course:

1. Create a file or binder organizing all your paperwork. It will be important to keep track of everything that happens in an IEP meeting and being organized is the first step.

2. Understand whenever you contact the school about your child or their plan you need to document it. Write down the date, who you talk with, and the method of communication. Also, include the topic of conversation. It is best to always contact teachers or administrators in writing. If problems arise, you have a well-established record of your attempts to communicate. From here on out the best policy is document, document, document.

3. E-mail all your child’s teachers. Introduce yourself, be friendly and welcome them to the team. This is your first line of defense if your child is not meeting their goals. Teachers will keep you informed, but you may have to reach out on a consistent basis to stay that way.

4. Ask the school what specific strategies they are using. Keep an open mind of things you might be able to implement at home. If you have specific things you are doing that work already, be sure to share those with your child’s teacher.

5. Understand your rights. Let me say that again, “UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS!” Some of the most basic ones are important to know. You have the right to call an IEP meeting at anytime to review your child’s progress or make changes. You have the right to get them re-evaluated once a year if you like. You have the right to put things in writing. You have rights! Know them and use them!

https://doe.sd.gov/sped/documents/parentalright.pdf

The IEP process is a journey. It changes depending on whose involved, how your child is progressing, and planning for what is next. You know your child best! I am always available for an overview or advice. 605-431-3318 www.inspire1learning.com

Plan for next school year? Already? YES!

Can you believe it is already February? For many there is only 3-4 months of school left! In the scheme of things that time will fly by quickly. Now is the time to ask questions and start planning for next school year. Waiting until May stresses out staff and makes it more difficult to accomplish successful planning. Here are some questions I ask families as a check-in for how things are going:

What path is your child on with their current plan?
Are they making progress? How do you know?
Does your child need outside therapies? OT? Speech? Behavioral?
How will they continue to work on their goals over the summer? Do they need ESY?
What suggestions have teachers made to help your child make progress? Are they effective? Can you do them at home? Have the suggestions you made been implemented or tried?
Was your parent teacher conference specific and data driven or was it vague? (Vague comments are always a red flag for me!)

For High School students, I would ask all the above questions with a few adjustments. In high school, the goal is to launch functioning, well rounded young adults. IEP’s often reflect these functional skills. Parents need to be aware and diligent in this phase of development. When working with families, I will often ask:

How many credits do they have? What classes can you choose from to suit their needs?
Can you spread out the more difficult classes over time, so your child is not overwhelmed?
Have they taken driver’s ed? Are they learning functional skills to prepare them for work?
Are their work experience classes or mentoring programs they could try?
Is there a study skills class to help them with time management?
Does your child need ESY? (extended school year services)
Is your child turning 18 soon? Do you need consider guardianship or power of attorney?
What is their plan for post high school? Are you taking the appropriate steps to make that happen?

This is a long list of questions that, once answered, can help shape your child’s future for the better. Call an IEP meeting, discuss these questions, and plan accordingly. The sooner the better! As an advocate I can help you fine tune these to meet the individual needs of your child. 605-431-3318. www.inspire1learning.com

New Year! Fresh Start! Handling it all like a Pro!

Some basic things happen when I work with families who have had an IEP in place for years. No one knows where all their paperwork is, no one knows their child’s goals or accommodations from memory, no one understands present levels of achievement, and no one knows their rights. I get it! It is an overwhelming system that expects you to be an expert while still managing everything your child needs. Below are simple things to tackle and can make your 2021 IEP better for your child.

1. Organize! Find all your paperwork, get a binder, and put it all together by year. I also suggest using a tracking sheet of requests you made, the date and to whom you made them, and if they were honored.

2. Keep a quick guide of all your child’s IEP goals. ALL OF THEM. Past and present. Note if they have been met or not. Even if the goal was from years ago, you can revisit it if you believe it has not been met.

3. The goals are driven by your child’s present levels of achievement. This is an EXTREMELY IMPORTANT section of the IEP. It drives the goals we mentioned above. Think of this section as the proof of what your child’s needs and strengths are. Sometimes, in some schools these areas are neglected or worse…exaggerated. For example, I have one client whose child’s present levels of performance said they could read at a level Z. This includes books like “Of Mice and Men” and “The Outsiders”. I tell you this child could barely read directions on a worksheet let alone a level Z. We asked for proof that these types of books could be read fluently with full comprehension and discussion of deeper symbolic meanings. You can imagine the answer. Fortunately, this was quickly changed to reflect how the child was truly reading which led to stronger reading goals.

4. You are given procedural safeguards. Read them. (If you don’t want to read them, hire me. I’ve read them and know them inside and out.) These safeguards are there to inform, to build trust, and to help you understand you are an equal member of the team. They help your child get what they need to succeed.

4 easy steps to get your new year (as a parent of a child who receives special education services) off to a strong start! I am always available for a quick chat, to offer insight, or to simply reassure you. Give me a call to review any or all of these simple tasks! 605-431-3318 inspire1learning@gmail.com
www. inspire1learning.com

Going into the Holidays…

Looking back at the last 6 months I have been continually impressed on how families are pushing through the pandemic. Everywhere I look plates are full and life has quickly become this insane balancing act. Now more than ever we need to take a deep breath and take a step back. Its’ time to take stock of what we have accomplished and what we can control in the hectic holiday weeks ahead. Family from out of town might be visiting. You might be traveling. School will be on break. We may quickly find this lack of consistency has ourselves and our kids spinning.

Now this may not be the most professional post, but I am hoping to bring some perspective. Here is a truth, teachers have known for years; no matter the age or abilities of our children, despite the pandemic, ALL kids lose their minds during the holidays. Yes, ALL OF THEM! ALL children are over excited. ALL of them have a hard time focusing. ALL children are experiencing sensory overload. It is like they all turn into little holiday monsters who cannot self-regulate. I hope this little dose of reality brings you comfort. This common thread of stress, inconsistent schedules, and overall holiday chaos gives me pause. We could all use some tips surviving the holidays with a smile and sense of peace.

Here are some practical steps we can implement to keep the peace.

Step 1: Identify your comfort zone. Be honest about who you want to spend your time with. Think about how you want your family to spend their time. What makes you feel comfortable? What will make your child feel comfortable? Who makes you laugh, smile, and feel completely accepted and loved? If there is a situation or a person or even a place that will disturb that peace, realize it is ok to skip the event, cancel plans, and just claim some space. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family.

Step 2: Slowly introduce sensory input. It seems in our house Christmas goes up in one weekend. Everything! Lights, tree, decorations, cookies, presents… AHHH!!! It is A LOT! And like a crazy person I do it every year! Why do we do this to ourselves? All children could benefit from the slow introduction of things. Just because the tree is up does not mean it needs to be decorated the same day. Nor does it have to have freshly wrapped presents underneath it, ASAP. Preparing your child for the changes to their environment in stages can lower anxiety and mitigate sensory concerns.

Step 3: Try to keep a schedule/routine: I am always so proud of families who assert their need to maintain a schedule. For many it keeps their children calm, stable, and it helps mitigated melt downs. I cannot stress enough how important routine is for ALL children. Research shows consistent routines help children feel safe and secure.

Step 4: Practice “front loading”: This is an educational term and a strategy that works wonders. It is basically predicting what will happen for your child. Again, it is a strategy that can help ALL children.

For loud noises try saying, “When we get there the music and people
might be loud. You can use your headphones to help you block out
sound.”

For social concerns try saying, “There is going to be lots of
people there wanting to talk and visit with you. It’s ok to take
breaks and come find me if you get overwhelmed.”

For high energy try saying, “I can see you are excited. When we get
there, let’s talk with the host about boundaries. What is ok to
play with? What is ok to do?”

Remember, what may seem completely typical to us can overload children’s senses and overwhelm their emotions. Let’s prepare them for scenarios that could be triggers.

Step 5: Give family members insight on your child: Sometime people are not sure how interact with a child with Autism or Downs or ADHD. Email, call, or text family members things you know that work. Give them the heads up on your child’s triggers, aversions, or sensory needs. I know I appreciate knowing! I go out of my way to meet the needs that friends and family have requested. I want my home to be a safe place for any child.

Step 6: Identify a helper: Oh Momma’s! We put too much pressure on ourselves. Dads, I don’t mean to leave you out, but when it comes to tough moments, us Momma’s bear the brunt. We are the ones processing emotions with our kids, doing the front loading, helping with the sensory issues, and trying the impossible task of planning and preparing for the unknown. It is stressful! For those of you who need to hear this, “It’s ok to need to tap out every once in a while”. Find a person who understands your child, who your child views as safe, and create a plan for help. I love being that person to my girlfriends. I love stepping up and offering them a moment of respite because I understand how desperately it is needed.

Step 7: Be kind to yourself: Repeat after me… I will not compare my children with others. I will not put my children in obligatory situations that cause them to be upset. I will unplug from social media and realize that the pictures I see are just that…pictures, just a snapshot, not a whole life. I will be true to myself, my family, and the needs of my children. That’s it! Nothing else matters in the scheme of things.

With all my well-wishes… find your balance, maintain your peace, give yourself some grace and have a VERY Merry Christmas!

Getting Personal

Today I am compelled to write about my daughter. This is not from an advocate, this is from me, the Momma of a child with Dyslexia. The Momma who gets frustrated her daughter is in third grade and cannot spell basic site words. The Momma whose child reads an entire grade level behind. The Momma who is trained in all things education, advocacy, special education, and uses the Barton Method with fidelity. The Momma whose heart still breaks because of the mountain my daughter has to climb when it comes to literacy.

In the beginning, my “M” started off great with reading. I was so proud of her bringing home her little level A books and reading every night in Kindergarten. She made progress and was moving through the standards guided reading levels. I never suspected a thing. I was confident she would make gains and learn to read and write. Then, in second grade, something changed. It was like she just got stuck. It took longer and longer to move to the next level. Words confused her. She guessed all the time when reading and could not spell. She avoided writing and reading. She would find ways to get me or the computer to read it for her. She would send video and audio responses instead of typing them. She was a pro at avoidance strategies!

I know it was not her teacher. She had the most amazing teacher. A woman who is an expert in her field. This teacher knows literacy inside and out. I have the utmost respect for her ability as an educator and her opinion. If this teacher could not get my daughter to make progress, I knew something was up. She moved to third grade and these problems persisted (even with another excellent teacher). Yet here I was, a trained advocate and a trained teacher questioning my own insight. I am someone who knows about pedagogy, methodology, and child development. I found myself wondering, “Is there something wrong? Is she not paying attention? Is she not working hard enough? Did I not read enough to her? Did I not make her read enough? Was she not in a literacy rich environment?” I went through all those questions and self-doubt that I warn parents about. Everything I knew about Dyslexia went out the window. Everything I knew about teaching and learning, forgotten. I just could not fathom that my child, the child of an expert, was struggling. I was not trusting my instincts that she was struggling because of Dyslexia. I knew it in my core and could not admit it. I am ashamed of this fact.

My thought process was completely skewed. Yes, my daughter had reversals of letters, but that is not the only indicator of Dyslexia, it could just be a developmental thing. So, I dismissed it. Yes, my daughter mixed up letters when she wrote words. Again, it could be developmental. Her spelling? Atrocious! Her reading fluency? Choppy! Her ability to decode words? She guessed! I had to take a hard look at all of these pieces of evidence. I could not blame her teachers, they were wonderful. I could not blame myself, although I tried. I could not blame her, unfortunately I tried this too. It boiled down to understanding this was all beyond her control because she lacked the tools she needed.

We started the Barton method in May. This was not easy. She did not want Momma to see how she had been coping, compensating, and covering. It was eye opening. Her struggle was far worse than I had thought. One lesson could take three, 45-minute sessions for her to process. Sometimes, I had to go back and re-teach lessons. She needed explicit, repetitive, multi-sensory instruction. It was a whole new way of looking at literacy and it was a major shift for her. This philosophy contradicted everything she had been taught about Reading and Writing. Now on level 4, I still remind her not to guess and to use her knowledge of language and letter sounds to decode a word.

I wish educators would understand, this is such a long road. It takes patience, determination, and strength to do what you know your child needs. I wish educators would understand this is not made up, not an excuse, and that parents of children with Dyslexia are not crazy. I wish they would not be so dismissive. I wish they knew that certain methods of teaching reading will do more damage than good. A multi-sensory method will serve my child far better. Reading and writing is not one size fits all and being trained in multiple methods will benefit students. I wish educators would do an in-depth study on Dyslexia to understand it better. I wish they would understand the years I have spent studying Dyslexia, working with students who have Dyslexia, and advocating for them; then maybe they would see the validity to the discussion. I wish they could see how using an inappropriate method severely affects children with Dyslexia. It makes them hide who they are. It makes them pretend because they think they are dumb.

My daughter is smart and spunky. She is creative and funny. She is so much more than her struggle, her guided reading level, or her poor spelling. She is full of beautiful ideas that are difficult for her to express through written language. Last year, I had a little girl who would never read signs wherever we went. This summer, at Reptile Gardens, she read every sign and piece of information we passed. I almost cried. I had a girl who would not write thank you cards because she could not spell all the wonderful things she wanted to say. Now, she makes cards for fun. I had a girl who would never pick up a book and read to herself. (She preferred catalogues because of the pictures.) Now, she will choose a book to read because she wants to. She was bored this weekend and uttered the words,” I guess I’ll read a book.” What? I love that!
It has taken us 7 months to move 4 levels in Barton. That is unusually long. This just speaks to how much time we needed to understand basic sounds. She processes slowly and we only work on it a few times a week because it is exhausting for her. She still has struggles. She still cannot spell “people”, but we are working on it. She can, however, understand digraphs, blends, long and short vowels, and a myriad of other things she could not do 4 months ago. This is the best decision I have ever made for her. I am giving Barton time to fill the holes left by guided reading and then will likely pursue a 504 plan.

It is sad I do not trust the public schools across the state of South Dakota to handle Dyslexia appropriately. (It is not their fault; they lack training and understand of this complex disability.) She does need specialized instruction from the school, and I am fortunate to have the training to provide that for her. Most parents do not. She will also need accommodations. She may need audio books or verbal responses on tests. Her work will need to be looked at for its ideas instead of its spelling. She needs things that can reveal her true intelligence and help everyone see her beyond Dyslexia.

I look forward to the day when she can read and write confidently. I know Dyslexia will always be an issue for her. I am thankful I can give her the tools she needs to make progress and find success. I am thankful for my training and understanding of this topic. I am thankful for this platform to tell my daughter’s story. I hope this reaches another family struggling, another family with questions, another family who does not know what to do and needs help. I am here. The Dyslexia community is here. We can help. Thank you for reading. www.inspire1learning.com

Hey Parents….listen up!

Hey Parents, did you know how you approach an IEP meeting has a serious impact on its outcome? What kind of energy are you bringing to the table? Are you biased? Do you have negative past experiences? Do you feel fear? embarrassment? anger? Do you just want to cry? I think I have worked with families that experience all these emotions. This is what I call “educational baggage” and trust me, we all have it. It all stems from what school was like for us, how we learned, and how we process the hopes and dreams we have for our children. I have had parents call me in rage, in tears, and in utter confusion. I listen, understanding this all comes from the love you have for your children, knowing we must work through them to be an effective team.

Part of my job is to help you understand these feelings and determine if they are useful to our goal. Yes, parents cry at IEP meetings. It happens all the time, but I can tell you it does nothing to help your child. I know that is hard to hear but it is true. Teams see people cry all the time and it is not productive. However, taking those emotions and turning them into an impact statement or actionable goals is far more powerful. This can help the team better understand you, your family, and your child.

If I am to stand up for your child to the best of my abilities, I need to understand every part of your child’s history, including family dynamic. I have to understand your experiences with school and your child’s experiences. This helps me paint a more accurate picture of your child. We are looking at the WHOLE child, not just the one at school. For example, some children work all day to hold it together, to keep their behavior and emotions in check and then blow up at home. This is important information for the school to know. The team can work to help your child process during the day to lessen the reactions at home. Hiding your home life and experiences is a detriment to creating an effective plan.

To make a strong plan, I also try to see things from the perspective of the district. This can be confusing to families. Yes, I am there to represent your child, but I am also there to help you understand what fights are worth fighting. I have relationships with the people working with your children. I know when something we might be asking for is not possible. (We can still ask for it, but I will tell you it’s not likely as we plan.) Often, the two parties in IEP meetings see things very differently. These different perspectives can cloud judgement and decision making on both sides. This is often the case when discussing something like methodology. I often push for Orton Gillingham to be used for a child with Dyslexia. The district disagrees claiming their methods, training, and systems are enough to meet the needs of the child.
Understanding this perspective helps us shape the conversation.

Remember, I am not a “hired gun”. I do my best to stay unbiased and focus on the child’s needs. What is in the best interest of the child? What do they absolutely need to succeed in school? Are our requests reasonable? Are we placing too much responsibility on the school? Are we not considering our own roles and responsibilities? I would be failing as an advocate who claims to represent the whole child if we did not look at ALL the angles.

In conclusion, to make the most of my services, it is important share details about your child and family life. It will be helpful to work through emotions that can hinder progress at a meeting. We also may need to answer some hard questions. We will be prepared, calm, in control, and keeping the focus on your child’s needs once we do. In the end, it will all be worth it.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers!

I posted an “ask me anything” challenge on Facebook and you did not disappoint. I am always available and can be contacted through my website wwww.inspire1learning.com or Facebook. Here is what I received:

How do you get a 504 plan?
A 504 plan is all about access. It guarantees equal access to an education. Think of it as leveling the playing field. So, if a child has ADHD, Dyslexia, Anxiety, Diabetes, ect… the question becomes what do they need to access their education? What kind of accommodations will help them succeed? It is a disability that affects a major life activity. All you need to do is write a letter to the school (teacher and principal) and request a 504 plan. If they deny you, call me! It’s the equivalent of denying someone their civil right to an education. Remember, Grades are not an indicator of a disability. The parent/educator guide to 504, provided by the federal government, clearly states students may still need equal access to the general curriculum even if they have good grades.

How do you get an IEP?
This differs greatly from a 504. You don’t “get” an IEP. You are found eligible for an individualized education plan. This means your child will receive specialized instruction. They will have annual goals, accommodations, and a clear plan on how they will make progress. The first step is putting a request into writing that you suspect your child has a disability. This includes social emotional needs, academics, attention, and many others. There are 13 categories under which your child could qualify. Once you have written a letter stating the specifics of what kind of disability you suspect, the school will start the evaluation process. They will then hold an eligibility meeting to determine if your child has qualified. Then there will be the IEP meeting to develop the plan. Remember, your meaningful participation is guaranteed throughout the entire process. If you are just sitting across everyone at a table and not contributing, you may need to call an advocate to help you. It should never be a situation where you just sit, listen, and sign. Contribute! You know your child best!

What does an advocate cost?
We charge $75.00 per hour. However, we let you dictate how in depth we get. Some families opt for a quick 2-hour review. Other families feel better knowing we are with you every step of the way. If it is an initial IEP and evaluation, you can expect we will spend more time with you. We want to make sure you understand the process, the implications of testing results, and that we have a clear understanding of what you want for your child. If an IEP is already in place the time will consist of reviewing the plan, meeting with you to get your input, and attending the IEP meeting. We document concerns, communicate with the IEP team, and do our best to be the voice of your child.

Are IEP meetings longer when you are involved?
Absolutely! This is a good thing. You do not want to be rushed when it comes to your child’s educational needs. You want to have a complete understanding of what your child is learning and how they are learning. This takes time! Under IDEA, you are guaranteed meaningful participation. I believe “meaningful” means allowing more time to ask questions and sharing your ideas and knowledge. There are no time requirements for IEP meetings listed in IDEA. Of course, we want to be respectful of the school’s time but if you need another meeting to guarantee that meaningful participation, then so be it.

Can’t you just give me some quick advice?
We could, but each child is unique, and each plan is individualized. What works for one child may not work for another. That is why it is so important to see the evaluation results, input from teachers, your input, and their current plan. I need to have a clear picture of the child including strengths, weaknesses, and learning style. Many times, I will even ask to meet with your child to get their take on school.

Does having an advocate make the IEP team angry?
Sometimes. Unfortunately, advocacy has gotten the reputation of being adversarial. Too many, untrained advocates are quick to threaten lawsuits, state complaints, or due process. I will exhaust every effort before recommending any of these steps. I will negotiate, compromise, ask questions, and come up with creative solutions.
Some teams also take it is a sign that we do not trust them. This is not the case at all! I know teams are overworked and have large caseloads. I know they are bound by funding, staffing, and time constraints. I am not. I am free to look at the plan for the possibilities of what it can be and how it can help the child. It’s exciting to see the possibilities! I like to keep the focus on the child and create a plan that is unique and individualized to meet their needs. I find, once the meeting gets going, the team realizes I am not there to tear anyone down, I am not there to judge, I am not there to threaten, I am simply there to help families understand the process. I am there to ask for what we believe the child needs to succeed in school. I am there so families do not feel so alone and isolated. I am there to represent the interests of the child. I even make it a point to smile, make small talk, and try to break the ice. It is important to build trust and build relationships with people. I would be a terrible advocate if my goal were to fight and argue in every meeting. How would that help the child? How would I build any kind of mutual respect with the team?

How do you handle conflict?
Conflict is going to happen. It is a fact. However, conflict does not mean I become unprofessional. Conflict is simply a disagreement and adults have disagreements all the time. I do my best to stay calm, polite, and respectful. It is not personal. The school represents one perspective and I represent another. I stay objective, share my knowledge why I think my request is appropriate. Sometimes the team agrees, sometimes they do not. That is ok. I will advise you accordingly. I might say to let a request go; we have a good plan. I might say to enact your procedural safeguards and contact a lawyer. It depends on the child and the request. (In two years of advocacy I have only referred a family to a lawyer once. That shows negotiation can work!)

Do you only work in Rapid City?
I work all over the state of South Dakota thanks to technology. I can zoom into any meeting in any location. I can email you what you need to self-advocate. I can email or call schools. There is a great deal I can do even though I may be hours away from you. However, I do not work in other states. Although IDEA is federal law, state requirements vary. I am only familiar with the laws, policies, and procedures of the state of South Dakota and IDEA. I am not a lawyer, I am not a psychologist, I can only advise you based on my training through the Council of Parents Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), my experiences as a teacher, and my history in advocacy.

Back to school plan

Hello! Many districts are already back in school and some are starting next week. This is the time to get yourself organized. Here are a few tips that can help make this year run smoother in all the chaos with covid.

1. Document anything you have noticed with your child being home for such a long period of time. Think about: What changes did you see? What went well? What was not working for them? Did you notice any new triggers? Have you noticed any avoidance behaviors? Did you notice any new strengths? Did they start any new medication, therapies, or activities?

2. Talk with your child about their up and coming school year. Ask them: What do you want your teachers to know about you? How do you think you learn best? What would you like to see more of? How can we support you as a team? How can we help you find success this year?

3. Set goals with your child. Create a small, short-term goal to help them get through the beginning of the year. This can be weekly, monthly, or by semester. These goals can be academic, social, emotional, or something personal. Help them devise a plan to achieve them. We are setting our children up for success, so make sure it is attainable.

4. Review last years paperwork. Did they make progress on their IEP goals? If not, why? How is that going to be addressed this school year? How is the 504 going to be implemented if we move to full online learning? How do behavior plans need to be adjusted to reflect the different models of learning? (This is the bulk of what advocates do, there are a multitude of questions you have the right to ask. You also have the right to receive a detailed answer.)

5. Contact the school in writing. I cannot stress this enough! All contact must be in writing, especially when you are making a request that will help your child obtain the free and public education they are entitled to under federal law. Of course in this letter, be friendly and welcoming; set the “team” like attitude. Share the information you collected in steps 1-3 and the questions you formed in step 4. This will not only start a strong paper trail in case problems arise but it will also make sure everyone is on the same page for what we want the school year to hold for your child.

If any of this seems overwhelming, hiring an advocate can help. We can spend a short amount of time looking over your paperwork and offering insight into what all those evaluations, plans, and goals actually mean. We can take all of this information and craft a letter for you. We can simply listen to your insights, frustrations, fears, and offer comfort and an ally. We hope all of this information helps you start the school year off in confidence!

What do we value?

Part of the work I do to remain positive and professional is focus on value systems. Knowing what I value about education, families, children, and the special education process is imperative. Some districts misinterpret the intention of advocates and our role in the process. Having a clear value system to refer to can help. Clearly defining
values can also help keep the focus on what your child needs to succeed in school. My value system defines my expectations at an IEP table and guides my own behavior. Here is my list:

I value children and putting their needs first.
I value meeting those needs with a plan.
I value that ALL children can learn.
I value inclusion.
I value differentiation.
I value equality.
I value the concept that “one size does not fit all”.
I value early interventions.
I value creative solutions and outside the box thinking.
I value collaboration.
I value flexibility.
I value honesty and integrity.
I value truth.
I value data, information, and learning.
I value training.
I value specific, detailed plans that are put in writing.
I value parent, child, and teacher input.
I value preparing children for the future.
I value asking questions.
(Yes, even the hard ones no one wants to answer.)
I value documentation.
I value second opinions.
(Yes, second opinions are ok! Really, they are!)
I value professionalism.
I value leaving plans a little better, a little more detailed than I found them.
I value families speaking their truth, their opinions, and
being respected.
I value open communication.
I value learning from mistakes.
I value determination and follow through.
I value optimism.
I value the rights afforded to families under IDEA and Section 504.

What do you value? Maybe we have some shared values that can help unite us in a common goal to create an appropriate and individualized plan for a child. It’s a beautiful concept!
www.inspire1learning.com
605-431-3318
inspire1learning@gmail.com

10 Ways to Survive Online Learning

Schools across the nation are closing due to increased Covid-19 cases. Parents are working from home and doing their best to balance work, school, and relationships. Kids are experiencing anxiety and depression from the inconsistent schedules and being away from teachers and friends. This is transferring to what they accomplish at home and how they are interacting with siblings and parents. Life is quickly becoming a mess for many families. We all still love our kids with our whole hearts, and we want what is best for them, we want them to learn. But let’s be honest, for some of us, online learning is a struggle. So, how do we love and support our kids through this stressful time? Here is my top 10 list for surviving online learning:

1. Create a written schedule (and stick to it): Schedule classes, zooms, downtime, everything they could need to get through the first half of the day. (Note I said the first half of the day… more on that next.) Make this a routine and include time for you to check in on them and answer questions. Set the example. If your child gets off task, the day is not lost. You can increase your check in times, redirect them, answer their questions, and make sure they know you are there for them. (which is truly the most important thing.)

2. Allow flexible seating: your child does not have to work at a desk or a table. Where do they feel comfortable? Where are they the most focused?

3. Allow for frequent breaks: These breaks should last at least 10 minutes and can be a great time for kids to get a snack, a drink, or just move around. This also prevents excuses during online learning because they know a break is coming. Look at your day as three main chunks: after breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner. It’s an easy plan that kids of all ages can understand. (P.S. a break is not more screen time. Breaks are not for phones or video games.)

4. Do the hard stuff first: if they hate Math, get it out of the way! Starting with the harder things allows them to use all their energy, determination, and focus to tackle the difficult subjects. It teaches them not to procrastinate and to learn when to ask for help. If they get stumped, it can give them time to zoom with their teacher or ask a question via email. If your child absolutely needs your help on a specific subject, make time for it in the schedule above.

5. Reach out to teachers: Educators are sad and stressed being away from their students. This is just as hard for them as it is for us. If problems arise, send an email, or attend a zoom. I find, they are more than happy to help. One of the best ways to handle the stress of it all is to communicate! You are not a bother; you are doing your best to support your child.

6. Allow kids to vent: kids need a place to say if they think something is dumb or frustrating. They need to know you understand, you are not going to judge them for it, and you will help them work through their emotions. In a crisis like this one, the old fashioned “buckle down and focus” conversation can make things worse. Making a child laugh at a situation and preserver is far more effective.

7. Document concerns: if you notice your child have frequent meltdowns, using avoidance strategies, refusing to read or write, and anything else that seems out of character, WRITE IT DOWN. Keep track of the frequency, times of day, and what could be the trigger. This is valuable information that teachers use to determine if there is a potential learning disability. They can also use it to make accommodations for your child, so the work is more manageable.

8. Ask for accommodations: let the school know your child might need extra-time to complete assignments. Ask for alternative assignments. For example, if writing is a challenge maybe they can submit a video. If lengthy reading passages are a problem, ask for an audio version of the book. There are many solutions!

9. Use tech tools: It is ok to google something, ask Alexa, or look for helpful videos on YouTube. It is ok to use speech to text or audiobooks. We all do it! (Yes, even the well-trained educational advocate needs help with 7th grade Math.) There are wonderful resources out there like Khan Academy or Grammarly that can be a lifesaver.

10. Give yourself Grace: You are not a trained educator. You love your child fiercely but putting pressure on yourself to be an expert in excel or algebra or any other topic is unrealistic. Joke with your kids about it. Take deep breaths, set small goals, and congratulate yourself for surviving another round of online learning! www.inspire1learning.com