Defending Children in a Broken System

Recently, I have had the opportunity to discuss what I do within this system of special education with a variety of people. I always respond that my goal is to level the playing field for families who have no knowledge of educational language, methods, or appropriate interventions and to inspire those around me to think differently about a child. I found their comments intriguing. One said, “It’s almost like you’re a defense attorney.” Profound statement! Why would a system that loves and supports children and is designed to meet their unique needs, warrant a defense attorney? These children are not criminals. They haven’t done anything wrong. They do not need to be punished. They are children who think, learn, and interact with others in a non-typical way. Yet, often those of us working to help them feel as if they are being treated as such by “the system”.

Ahh… “the system”. Amongst my fellow advocates, we talk about “the system” all the time. The system won’t allow certain therapies, the system won’t all certain methods, the system is short-staffed, the system is overstressed, the system if failing. All true! Inherently though, “the system” often treats special education students as an inconvenience. (I know this is hard to discuss and I am probably offending everyone from teachers to parents but stay with me.) These students take the most time, the most skilled interventions, and often need additional staff and resources that take significant funding. Students in special education are not labeled as the “easy” student. It is often quite the opposite. They are atypical and often do not fit the mold of conventional teaching methods or traditional schools. They may even need in school instruction from those outside “the system” who have dedicated their adult lives to honing their skills as specialists.

On some level, the request for additional services is seen as a burden, a problem, or catering to a child/parents’ whim. Many of us have experienced this truth. Recently, there has been a significant uptick in gaslighting and dismissing the concerns of families. We become the problem, we become labeled as difficult and wrong. We find ourselves second guessing our requests. Were we wrong? Were we asking for too much? Are we overreacting? Are we the problem? Is my child the problem? Are we not being considerate of the needs of the school? Is my child the reason the system is strained? WOW! That is a lot to process!

Understanding we are trying to educate students that do not reflect common and established teaching methods can influence the plan we develop. This is where a child’s disability and the challenges that come with it become the perceived cause of the disagreement. In many IEP meetings there is this unspoken tension. The sighs, the eye rolling, the large silent pauses, the use of the word “no” over and over. The situation is permeated with negativity when it comes to requests for testing, intervention, and help. When parents come in with questions, outside resources, or an advocate the air suddenly leaves the room. (I do my best to put everyone at ease, but that is not my job or my responsibility. My job is to speak on behalf of the child and their family.)

Those in “the system” will disagree. They may even feel judged by my opinion on this topic. They will say, we love these kids, we love what we do. We do our best to accommodate everyone. I believe them. I honestly believe their intentions are good. I know many dedicated and kind people in special education. I know many who go above and beyond. I know many who think outside the box and welcome input. These are my go-to people whom I trust! However, I also know many unwelcoming, threatening, and rigid people in special education. They hold so tightly to their way of doing things it is a detriment to the children in their care. These are the people I am constantly trying to reach, even if my attempts are futile.

I am there to help people truly see a child. I am there to offer creative solutions. I am there to inspire. I want them to know it is ok to hold a love of education and a frustration with education at the same time. You can love something AND you can also be completely overwhelmed by it. You can have advanced degrees AND lack knowledge in certain areas. You can love to work with kids AND still fear their behaviors. You can be a trained expert in one method AND still need help and insight using a different method. These can co-exist. It does not mean the system is bad. It doesn’t mean the teacher is terrible and it sure doesn’t mean the student is the problem. It just means “the system” is not being honest with itself. It is ok to admit when something is not working. It is ok to learn and try new things. It is ok to ask for all parties to ask for what they need, and it is ok to say yes to them.

A system that discourages this type of collaboration and compromise needs to change. A system that makes parents feel like their child needs a defense attorney needs to change. What if “the system” approached unique learners as the law intends?

Yes! They can stay in the general classroom setting with support services.
Yes! We want to include the input from their therapist.
Yes! Train our staff on the methods the data shows works for your child.
Yes! I am glad you asked for an evaluation, something is hindering your child’s ability to learn.
Yes! This plan is not working, let’s make changes.
Yes! Bring someone along who can offer you support in a world you know little about.

What if a switch flipped and the intended concept of everyone at the meeting being an equal team member was honored? What if everyone’s input was considered and weighed against a child’s needs? The so called “system” would no longer be seen as an untrustworthy enemy. The system might actually work.

To all of you navigating this with me, keep on keeping on. We will learn together, grow together, and keep trying. We will change this pervasive, underlying, unspoken, negativity to special education. We will keep being reasonable and creative and collaborative. Let’s keep painting beautiful pictures of our children together!

Jackie Waldie
Inspire Education
605-431-3318

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.

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!

Why advocacy?

When it comes to our children and schools, emotions run high. Advocates, like myself, who are professionally trained understand the importance of keeping things calm and objective. Every parent needs an ally. You need that person who can tell you to “trust your gut” or “you are not crazy”. We can turn all of your thoughts, feelings, and concerns into educational language that spurs action. A well-trained, non-attorney advocate is familiar with every policy, procedure, and law you might encounter. We can sit by your side in any meeting and help assert your parental rights as well as the rights of your child. You know your child best! An advocate, when enlisted from the start, can prevent bigger problems down the road. We read reports, write letters, listen, share ideas, and do our best to represent your child.