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 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.

On Reading Wars… part 2

The core of the argument concerning the reading wars is about methodology. This is HOW your child is being taught. Whole Language is one way or METHOD of teaching reading. Orton Gillingham is another. However, OG specifically addresses the needs of learners with dyslexia. Whole language learning does not.

Some children with Dyslexia memorize the shapes of words. This is because the letters could appear to the child in any order. If they memorize the shape of the word, they can give the impression they are reading. (You may have heard the phrase, “guessing is not reading”. This is where that phrase comes from.) In guided reading, we teach children to look at familiar parts of words. We teach them to use the pictures to help them. We teach them to use context clues. Children with Dyslexia will focus on “using the pictures” as their primary strategy. Take those pictures away, and suddenly they cannot read. They have a hard time using known parts of words or “chunks” because, again, the parts of the word or the letters may be processed in a different order in the brain. This strategy is not effective for them. Context clues also becomes a challenge because the reader is supposed to use the words around the unknown word to help it make sense. Again, the way words are processed in the dyslexic brain does not correlate with this method. Thus, a different method will be more effective. Using a method that utilizes phonemic awareness, with a focus on syllables and rules, is appropriate methodology for children with Dyslexia. We know this. Research has proven this. Yet, getting an IEP team understand this is usually a HUGE undertaking.

We know children with Dyslexia needs specialized instruction. This has been upheld in the court system. Research also shows they need a multi-sensory approach to reading. This is not whole language. This is OG, Barton, Wilson, and Lindamood Bell. But these are not the methods most public schools use, have access to, or are even trained in. Districts will not commit to the purchasing or the training of these programs because it can be expensive. Getting a district to financially commit is always a fight in the world of advocacy. Always.

The reason why IEP teams have a hard time with developing IEP’s for children with dyslexia comes down to methodology. IDEA does not say a school has to use a specific method at the parents’ request. IDEA just says they need specialized instruction to meet their unique needs. A school can offer specialized instruction without using OG or any other method you may suggest. Methodology then becomes a gray area in which IEP teams across the country debate about. It is rare to get a school to admit their methodology is not working. It takes an extensive amount of data collection, time, and debate.

My training influences my philosophy about methodology. If something is working for a child and allowing them to make gains towards their goals, it needs to be allowed. The Federal Department of Education states, “if an IEP Team determines that specific instructional methods are necessary for the child to receive FAPE, the instructional methods may be addressed in the IEP.” The decision is truly left to the state and local school districts. Unfortunately, it is easy for many districts to say “no”. They know you will have to file a state complaint, or due process, or obtain a lawyer. Most families give up at this point understanding it could take 2-3 years of legal proceedings to see any progress. It’s not personal, it is a systemic problem.

The true consequences, in the end, is that children with Dyslexia are not getting what they need to succeed in school. It is a fact and not up for debate in my mind. So… case by case, family by family, child by child, I do my best to prove METHODOLOGY MATTERS.

I am an expert…

There are many different types of advocates out in the world. It is wise to understand who they are, their experience in education, and their philosophy. Some might be able to advocate for you for free but you have to ask: What experience and training do they have? What is their style? How much will they help my family? Is their goal my goal? Are they threatening? Is their goal a lawsuit? Are they too objective? Are they going to truly represent my child?

With me, I can tell you exactly what you will get. You will get someone who listens. Someone who will take your frustrations and anger and turn them into actionable goals. I am polite, friendly, honest, and I actively work to build relationships with the school. However, this does not mean I am push over. I have years of experience in the classroom and advocacy. I have been trained by a national organization (COPAA) and have a Masters’ Degree in Education from the University of South Dakota. Yes, I am bound by a Code of Ethics and will never shout, belittle, or threaten a team but I am FIRM. I know your rights and I know how to assert them effectively. I will use state and federal code to negotiate services for your child. I know the meaning of evaluation results and how they translate into the classroom. I know what appropriate services look like for children and I am an expert at seeing when that is not happening. Even if you are unsure, call me for a review! We can do chat via email, zoom, or by phone. or 605-431-3318

On the Reading Wars…

Why does Dyslexia get such a bad rap in the world of special education? It is a disability. This fact can no longer be debated according to federal guidance. It affects 1 in 5 children and therefore is quite common. Plus, it often holds back some very bright children from loving school because they cannot read, write, or spell effectively. Yet our schools hold onto one specific method with all they can muster. Thus, we have the reading wars. Two camps of people who believe strongly in their method of teaching and will not compromise on what is best for the child. This makes me sad as a parent of a dyslexic child, an educator, and an advocate.

As I put my teacher hat back on for a moment, I look at the training I have had in both Whole Language Learning and Orton Gillingham. Teachers are extensively trained in guided reading, the core of whole language. Honestly, when I was teaching, I loved it! However, it did not help all my students make progress. There was always a few in each class, no matter what I did, that did not make gains. As I look back, I wonder how many of them had dyslexia? I think of my own daughter, who has had and still has AMAZING teachers. People who I turned to for my own training and advice when I was still in the classroom. People whom I completely have faith in, whom I complete believe in their teaching abilities. People who are experts at teaching reading. If anyone could help my daughter read, write, and spell, it is these teachers. They are the best of the best. Yet, here she is, an entire grade level behind in reading and even further behind in writing. It is not a reflection on them, it is a reflection on the fact that she learns differently. (I began OG with her in May. I knew it would work because I could see how she processed language. I am happy to report we are still doing OG, it is still working, she is making gains, and she is beginning to enjoy reading!)

Now, from a teacher’s perspective, a parent bringing this unknown method of Orton Gillingham to the table is intimidating. There was a time when I knew nothing about it and had concerns about its validity. Was it rigorous and relevant? Does it correlate with our standards? Is it effective? Is it research based? By using it, are we challenging the expertise of the school and passing judgement on the teaching abilities of staff? This is not the case at all! The dyslexia community, including myself, is just trying to tell their child’s story. We are trying to explain that using one, particular method (of guided reading) does not work for dyslexic learners. There are mountains of evidence and research to support this claim. There are true scientific reasons why whole language learning is the complete OPPOSITE of how children with dyslexia process and learn language.

Between the myths that are circulating and the lack of training, it can be hard to determine what Dyslexia looks like in the classroom. Like I mentioned above, Dyslexics process differently, not wrong, not in a bad way, just different. We need different methods to help them understand and retain information. The Orton Gillingham approach is a powerful tool for a teacher to possess when a child is struggling in Reading, Writing, or Spelling. I can tell you from experience, it is a JOY to watch children unlock their potential and begin to not only learn to read but LOVE to read! Children often breathe a huge sigh of relief when I no longer ask them to “stretch out a word” or look for a known “chunk”. They finally have the freedom to say, “This is not working for me. I don’t get it.”

If I could go into schools and share some basics with staff, I think we would be better at identifying and helping our students that have these struggles. My wish list is as follows:

1. Dyslexia is a spectrum disorder. You can have a mild case and it can still wreck-havoc on your learning.

2. It is not all about letter reversals. My goodness, this is the worst myth of them all!

3. You may see children substituting pronouns consistently as they read. (he for she, we for us)

4. You may see children mix up basic articles like “a” and “the”

5. Children may not be able to write on a line.

6. They may have all the letters to a word but in a mixed-up order.

7. They may insert extra letters into words that are not there. They may mix up the endings of words.

8. They may jumble words in a sentence.

9.They may avoid reading out loud at all costs.(Nor should they be forced to read aloud.)

10.They have outstanding coping mechanisms and have all sorts of creative ways of hiding they are struggling to read and write.

This list could go on and on! If you are an educator reading this, please reach out to learn more. If you are a parent reading this, please know I understand your point of view. This is no longer about dyslexia or the reading wars for me. It is about meeting the learning style of the child. It is about differentiating instruction. It is about abandoning this “one size fits all” mentality and making sure the school has ALL the tools they need to help ALL learners. 605-431-3318

Dyslexia Awareness Month

Oh, I have a heart for children with Dyslexia! They are typically bright, creative, kind, and helpful. We just need the right tools to unlock their potential. Unfortunately, many schools across the nation do not recognize Dyslexia as a disability. If they only knew the mountains these kids must climb just to survive public school! Reading effects everything! Your child might struggle in ALL subjects because of Dyslexia. This diagnosis has a major impact on their ability to be successful in an educational setting. It effects 1 in 5 children. That is a staggering statistic! Yet, schools are not responding to this research. (This lack of response has heavy ties to funding, staffing, training, and even the big curriculum companies. It is a complicated lengthy discussion that all in education must have.)
However, we do know we have guidance from the federal government and the Office of Special Education programs. The encourage schools to recognize Dyslexia and to discuss what methodology works best. I am trained in multiple methods of teaching reading, including whole language learning and Orton Gillingham. We know whole language does not work for children with Dyslexia, they process language differently. Using a specific, multi-sensory approach to reading will help Dyslexics process language in a way that is appropriate for them to understand. This gives them direct access to their education which is a cornerstone of IDEA and 504. It is imperative we bring attention to the work being done this month and keep the focus on how we can help children read. Keep checking our blog for insights!