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

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.

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!

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

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.