The One Hour Challenge

I am issuing a challenge! I truly believe you can change your life with one decision or one conversation. I challenge families across the State of South Dakota to spend one hour with me to talk about their child’s needs in education. One hour to change your perspective, to start creating a plan, to put specific steps in motion, and to get involved! Many people think of advocacy as a person who goes in and fights the battle for them. They can be reluctant to use my services for fear of the perception it may cause. However, I am here to remind everyone that fighting battles for you is NOT the goal of advocacy. A trained advocate knows the importance of empowering parents. I am here to make sure your input is included in every step of the process. I am here to learn about your child and their dreams for the future. I am here to ensure the schools know about these dreams so we can be a team that works together to achieve them. This is where the one-hour challenge comes in.

What can we achieve in one hour of time? Plenty! You can vent, tell me your frustrations and I can help you be calm and balanced for a meeting. We can talk about your child’s history and how to include that information. We can look over an IEP or 504 plan and look for ways to incorporate your ideas. We can talk about accommodations. We can talk about curriculum and requirements. I can meet your child and hear from them about what works or does not work in school. The list and possibilities are endless. One hour can make a difference! It is a reasonably priced way of dipping your toe into the world of advocacy without fearing how much everything will cost. It’s a way of gaining knowledge and preparing for the future. The time is now! Do not wait until a few days before your IEP meeting. Do not wait until parent/teacher conferences. Do not wait until you are overwhelmed or angry. Do not wait until your child is failing or getting in trouble. There is confidence and comfort in being proactive. Let’s be deliberate, direct, and diplomatic this year to PREVENT problems. Let’s build positive relationships with everyone on the team. Give me ONE HOUR of your time and see the difference it can make!
605-431-3318 inspire1learning@gmail.com

Hey Educators!

Guess what? As a special education advocate, I am not the enemy. What I am is a former public educator who has been in your shoes. I taught 5th grade for 12 years and I was good at it. I received numerous awards during my time in the classroom, including South Dakota Teacher of the Year. I also have my Master’s Degree in Education. Yet with all these accolades and degree’s, I can tell you I failed so many students. I began my educational career with exactly one class in special education on my resume. ONE! After 12 years of teaching, it was still ONE. I had no training in Dyslexia, no training in Autism, no training in emotional problems, no training in ODD, no training in Downs Syndrome; yet I was expected to sit at that IEP table and contribute. I was expected to execute that IEP like I knew what I was doing. I read books, took Love and Logic classes, and did what I could but deep down I knew I was out of my depth with some of my students. They needed more. They needed experts in their area of need. I knew those kids deserved better.

I am ashamed to admit, understanding these differently abled people and how they learned was not at the top of my to do list. I regret this every single day. This is one of the big reasons I chose advocacy, I chose to complete two and half years of training with national organizations like COPAA and ISEA. I chose to learn about Orton-Gillingham. I chose to rely on experts in OT or ABA therapy because they know better. I realized when kids were having meltdowns, throwing things, threatening others, I had NO IDEA how to respond in a way that could truly help them. When I had students who still could not read or write effectively after all my whole language strategies, I had NO IDEA they needed something more structured. As an educator, I hated it. I hated I could not help these kids. I hated they left my classroom missing some valuable tools. I hated no one was helping when I was saying over and over, “Something is off. This child needs more. This child needs something different.” To be clear, saying these statements should not make anyone the enemy, not even me, the child’s advocate. Saying this makes me an advocate who believes in the power of public education. It makes me an advocate who believes in teachers and believes the system can work. It makes me someone who is flexible and willing to try new things. It makes me someone willing to learn and admit they need help. It does not make me your enemy.

Somehow, last year advocacy became the enemy of public educators across the nation. I even felt those effects here in South Dakota. Out of all the teams I worked with last year I can only cite two who were kind, understanding, and open to the presence of an advocate. That is sad. I found myself in IEP meetings shocked at some people’s reaction to my presence. The anger, the condescending tones, the gaslighting; it was awful. I was sworn at, yelled at and accused of terrible things. This is unacceptable behavior in public education and therefore deserves the reminder again, I am not the enemy.

The true enemy is being closed off to a family’s requests, not being open to new ideas, and not allowing yourself to be open to discussion and compromise. I may hold you to a high standard, I may ask more of you for the sake of a child, I may write down what is being said for a clear record moving forward, I may ask hard questions, and I may even challenge status quo. This does not make me your enemy. This makes me the kind of teammate you want to work with, the kind of teammate who is open to new ideas, who puts children ahead of everything and everyone else, and who will do her best to help that child learn, regulate, and have written in their plan anything else they need. I know it is YOUR classroom, YOUR school, YOUR day to day with this child. If the child gets what they need, if they can find that success, the child will be better for it and so will YOUR classroom. As the school year begins, if I am at your IEP meeting know I will continue to speak up for the best interest of the child. The only thing I ask in return is to remember, I am not the enemy.

Back to School!

It is AUGUST! My goodness this summer flew by! I spent the time off from advocacy reshaping and reclaiming the mission of my business. Something I rediscovered is my love for coaching parents through this process. I had one coaching session that reminded me how much families really do need help. This awesome, kind, loving Mom had been pushed to her limit. She felt lost, powerless, and in over her head. In 2 hours, we were able to identify what was causing all the strife and create a solid plan to communicate the needs of her child in a more effective way. I loved hearing the optimism in her voice again! This is when I realized families don’t need someone to go into their meetings and yell or be demanding; they don’t need threats or vague promises. They need a trusted guide. They need someone outside the system to offer them support and knowledge. They need someone to help them trust their gut and give them the language to express all their thoughts and emotions about their child’s progress.

With this renewed outlook, we will be shifting some of our services for the coming school year. We are going to focus more on coaching families, sharing our skill set, and helping parents become empowered, equal participants at the IEP table. We will still attend IEP meetings and offer our advocacy services but only AFTER some specific steps have been taken.

In order to attend an IEP meeting, we will need to meet with you and your child. Together, we will create a plan to start helping you communicate in a way teachers and administrators will understand. We need to review ALL documentation and set realistic, reasonable goals. This must be done FIRST. You will be amazed how effective you can be with the right educational language and written responses. Remember, my goal is to put myself out of a job. I want you to have all the tools and confidence you need to communicate effectively with the school team. Now is the time! Do not wait until everyone is stressed and busy and your child is failing. Intervene early and intervene often. I look forward to a year of inspiring! www.inspire1learning.com, 605-431-3318, inspire1learning@gmail.com

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!

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

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