Pink Hearts & Bear Claws

pink heartIt’s hard being a kid, especially in middle school where up is down and right is wrong and social rules are ever-changing. I truly feel for my middle schoolers – I do; I wouldn’t want to go back.

For Davis*, that’s also the case, except he still has to muster his way through the next two and a half years of strife and confusion. His struggle is three-fold: (1) social cues alone are hard but couple that learning curve with autism and it becomes even harder; (2) transitioning from elementary school to middle is one of life’s BIG changes and comes with the need for greater emotional maturity, which not all of our students are ready for; and (3) Bear Claws – oh those coveted Bear Claws, a symbol that you are Top Dog with the most Class Dojo points and a chance to win free dress and front of the line lunch passes.

It is EVERYTHING in the social jungle that is middle school. Unfortunately, today, Davis did not earn a Bear Claw.

His day started out just fine, earning points for completing morning work, station rotations and fulfilling his classroom job. But something went awry after break and the points slowly kept slipping out of sight. He was neck and neck with Angel* when all of a sudden, Angel got double points for doing EXTRA WORK and SHOWING INDEPENDENCE. Poor Davis just couldn’t bounce back.

It was all too much.

And he just snapped.

“TEEEEAACCCHHHHEEERRR!!!”, Davis wailed in his Level 4 voice. “I NEED A POINT!!!!!! YOU HAVE TO GIVE ME A POINT!”

Of course, a Level 4 voice would never warrant a point; that would incite anarchy. Instead, he was issued a Warning, shortly followed by a Needs Work aka negative point.

Davis was down. But not out. Not yet.

With the help of my Amazing Aide, Davis sat on the stoop near the door and explained his side of the story. He argued his points like a well-seasoned attorney, citing all the evidence of the inherent unfairness of the point system in general and why he deserved a Bear Claw for his efforts today.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed and Davis was finally ready to rejoin the class. He took a few final Lazy 8 Breaths and strolled back to his seat. Before he resumed his rightful place at the corner desk, closest to the board so his wandering thoughts could be redirected to the lesson at hand, Davis, a kid whose struggle was real, took it upon himself to teach this teacher a lesson she’ll never forget.

Right there, in the midst of our planner and Remind.com end-of-day routine, Davis, with tear-stained eyes and a sniffily nose silently stood in my bubble space and placed a pink heart sticker directly on my heart.

He gave me his heart, with all of his heart.

I stood there for a few seconds, shocked yet honored to be a part of this moment.

His simple act of kindness was a keen reminder that even though he did not earn the Bear Claw today, Davis’ heart would always be in the right place.

*Names changed for privacy

__

Christine Terry is a Special Education Teacher and the Founder & Executive Director of Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services. She combines her teaching credential, psychology and law degrees, and a whole lotta chutzpah and heart to serve students and families seeking academic, behavior and advocacy support. Learn more at TerryTutors.com


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Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long 🙂

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.  For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”  or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want 

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Inappropriate Behavior May Be Masking a Learning Difference

2012.7.Class-ClownIf you’re a parent of a child struggling with inappropriate behavior at school, you might find yourself answering this question at an SST or IEP Meeting: Does your child’s behavior impede his/her ability to learn in the classroom?

If you answered yes, then know that you’re not alone. As a Wraparound Support Provider, I hear this all too familiar story from parents just like yourself:

It started with little things, like not paying attention to the teacher, failing to turn in homework, or talking when he’s not supposed to, but it soon escalated to an alternation with another student, maybe a former friend, on the playground or in the lunchroom and now the school is talking suspension. Phone calls from the school increased from once a week to twice and now it’s nearly every day. And every day it’s a struggle to understand why this is happening.

You know your child is smart, knows the rules of school and although may have had a little academic or behavior issue in the past, it has never been something to worry about. But now, you find yourself worrying about his future and wondering ‘why?’

The Behavior May Be Hiding the Learning Difference

When trying to uncover the reason behind a behavior difficulty at school, we must focus on the root cause. It is imperative that we refrain from putting too much stake on the surface behavior. Yes, the behavior is causing daily problems, but it is likely hiding something more serious. The only way to uncover the real issue is to take a thorough look at all areas of your child’s life: (1) Home Environment; (2) School Environment; (3) Individual Needs

What’s Going on at Home?

Family dynamic changes can be difficult transitions for kids of all ages. The first question to ask: What changes have occurred at home?

Was there a change to the structure of the family, parenting style, or the way the home is run? If so, we have to look closely at these changes, no matter how minute, because they are part of the bigger picture.

Let’s make sure not to play the blame game.

Parents cannot blame the school alone for their child’s behavior and the school cannot blame the parents only for their student’s difficulties. Really, no one should be blaming anybody but it often feels that way, doesn’t it.

We need to change that.

Looking at what changes have occurred in a child’s home environment is one part of the mystery. As parents, you must do your due diligence and answer that question honestly, keeping an open mind.

behavior is functional

What’s Going on at School?

The second question to ask: What’s happening during school that perpetuates the inappropriate behavior?

Maybe the new teacher is not your child’s favorite this year or maybe there’s another kid that’s picking on your kid.

School is just as much about social preservation as it is about academic prowess.

When delving deeply into the school day, we want to be mindful to look at social struggles as well as academic ones. If your child is facing a problem with one of his friends, that could be the precipice for the behavior. Even it is seems minor, it may be a major source of strain for your child.

It’s hard to remember that kids are just that — kids. We’re adults now and can handle more stressors and triggers, but our kids have yet to go through the ups and downs of life that we have. So when faced with what presents as a minor social hiccup, perhaps they aren’t as prepared as we’d like them to be because they haven’t yet had to deal with that particular situation.

A child who’s acting out in class may be masking a more serious learning difficulty.

We have to also look at the academic needs of the student. Oftentimes, the behavior is masking a more serious issue, like a learning difference.

This is a hard one because it’s not a quick fix and may very well be something the student must learn to navigate through not only in school but in life. And that’s okay.

We’ve come a long way in the way we think about learning disabilities, disorders and differences. We know that there is no one right way to learn and that standardized testing does not tell the whole story nor determine success in life. It’s still important, however, to acknowledge that there is a learning difference so that the school can put appropriate accommodations and modifications in place.

What’s Going on Internally?

Getting to the root cause of a behavior need, may uncover a learning difference, but we’ll only really have concrete evidence of that if your child is evaluated for one.

A Psychological Educational Evaluation (often called a Psycho-Ed Assessment/Eval) is conducted by the School Psychologist at the request of the parent. It is also the start of the I.E.P. process.

I recently had a parent tell me that requesting testing was initially a scary process because she didn’t know what the evaluation would reveal. By choosing to look at it as a general check-up, however, it lessened the worry and put things in perspective. If a learning difference is found and her child is able to get services through the school, then that is one more piece of the puzzle solved.

Collaboration is Key to Bridging the Gap Between Home & School

Teachers, Parents, Providers want the same thing: to solve the puzzle. We can’t do that, however, by piecemealing the process. We have to collaborate.  We must look beyond the outward behaviors to the core issues, working together to understand what’s happening at home in conjunction with what’s happening in the classroom.

To label a child a “Behavior Problem” is the equivalent of just looking at someone’s outward appearance and deciding their whole story. It’s unfair of us to do so. We won’t know the whole story until we uncover the root issue. It takes time, money, patience, and expertise. Once completed, however, we have a clearer picture of what’s really going on.

If your child is in need of behavior support or you want to find out more about services available for behavior needs, click on TerryTutors.com for more information.

Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them: “To be a part of a student’s ‘ah ha’ moment is the best feeling in the world because I know I’m helping that student build foundational confidence that will lead to a successful path, not just in school but throughout life!”

If It Wasn’t Written, It Never Happened: Avoid This IEP Pitfall

emailThe #1 Advocacy Rule: If it wasn’t written down, it never happened.

Here are some pointers about why creating a written record of your verbal conversations with teachers, therapists, and administrators will help you avoid this major pitfall of the IEP system.

THE WHAT: Email

Email is the cleanest way to send timely communication to all parties involved in the IEP process.

  • Create a file folder in your email account dedicated to all communication concerning the IEP process.
  • Send weekly updates to providers and the school.
  • Cc all support team members on those emails so we can be on the same page. If your child was struggling with a concept during tutoring, then her teachers should know about that so he can be aware and provide additional help.
  • Remember to leave emotion out of it. When communicating with the school, you’re wearing your objective Advocate Hat right now, not your parent hat.

THE WHO: All Support Providers

Who is included on these emails? Every service provider that your child is working with, such as teachers, administrators, therapists, advocates or attorneys, tutors, behaviorists, any other support service providers who are familiar with your child’s needs and care.

THE WHY: Concise, Communicative and Congenial

The reason why we create a written record is not litigious but rather so that everyone can remain in the loop and be on the same page. Miscommunication is the downfall of so many good parent/school relationships. Your job is to build a working relationship with your child’s support team. That includes taking on the task of secretary. You are your child’s point person and in doing so you must be concise, communicative, and congenial.

E-MAIL EXAMPLE

Here’s a clear example of what your emails should look like:

To: IEP Coordinator/Point Person

Cc: Meeting Attendees (Advocate or Attorney, Teacher(s), Vice Principal, SLP/OT/PT Therapists, Resource Specialist) & Those who did not attend the meeting but are still important support providers (Private SLP/OT/PT Therapists, Psychologist or Counselor, Tutor, Behaviorist)

Subject: Meeting Recap 3/31/15 – Student A.J.

Dear Team Aiden*,

Thank you for meeting with me today to discuss my son, Aiden Johnson*, and his challenges and successes in school.  After reviewing my notes, I believe it is best to move forward with Speech Language Pathology (SLP) testing. I will be contacting the SLP on staff (she is also cc’d on this email) this week to set up a time to review Aiden’s speech challenges and my additional concerns. My goal is to help Aiden as best we can, and so I would also like to discuss how we can work with Aiden on his goals at home.

Thank you once again for your time. Looking forward to speaking with the SLP this week.

Jenny Johnson*, Aiden’s Mom

(c) 310.555.7126

(e) jennyj@email.com

*Not real name

Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them: “To be a part of a student’s ‘ah ha’ moment is the best feeling in the world because I know I’m helping that student build foundational confidence that will lead to a successful path, not just in school but throughout life!”

10 Special Ed Blogs that Make You Wanna Go “Yeah!”

special_education_blogsMy Twitter feed is on fire with some awesome blogs lately. There are so many resources out there in internet-land that I had to share a few of my favorites.

If you’re looking for a little inspiration, need to find more education, or just want to talk about your frustrations then check out these gems in the blogosphere.

 

  1. Adventures in Aspergers
  2. Autism Father Blog
  3. Autism Hippie
  4. Firefly Friends
  5. Fusion Academy
  6. Innovative Speech & Language Pathology
  7. Love That Max
  8. National Center for Learning Disabilities
  9. The Center for Well-Being
  10. Wrightslaw

For more resources take a look at our LinksWeLove or Find Us on Facebook & Twitter

Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services.  Want to Know More? Head on over to TerryTutors.com.