We're Losing Our Kids

 Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

The suicide of a college student.  The disappearance of another from a busy street.  Both in my local community.  Both within the past three weeks.  One remains an active effort with the hope for a positive resolution.  The other no longer does.

A young man I know well called just prior to Thanksgiving, telling me that the roommate of a friend had just committed suicide.  On campus and in their shared room.  A college student approaching the finish line toward graduation with a full life yet to be lived.  His friend needed short-term housing until alternate living arrangements could be made.  I heard the pressing need, yet the only thing that registered was that another promising young adult was in so much pain that ending it all seemed to be the only way out.

The raised voices about removing the stigmas and providing better access to mental health care are being heard.  Identifying young people who are struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues is critically important, but that’s only one side of the coin.  There's another side, one that requires us to dig deep, that's as important if not moreso.

Like flipping a light switch, children cross a “magical threshold” into the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood when they turn 18.  Never mind that a child's brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25.  The welcome mat is thrown down and we hope for the best.

So what happens.  They find themselves navigating classes, working to maintain their grades, handling their self-care and finances, dealing with roommate and peer issues, figuring out new environments and expectations…a host of demands that would tax even the most prepared young adult.  Yet many are simply ill-prepared and not ready despite what the law says.

Along with reaching this passage to adulthood comes the accompanying challenges and obstacles that prevent and preclude friends, professors, and others from being able to step in when a student is in crisis.  And this doesn’t even touch on the "red tape" issues facing parents who are trying to get their children the help they so desperately need.  And often times from afar.

College is a “hot topic” today – in fact, I just blogged about it.  The cost of attendance, whether college is worth the investment of time and money, and the safety of students ... all important issues. Yet attention to the fact that the lives of many of these young adults are balancing on a tightrope because they are unable to handle the pressures seems to be missing in these discussions.  They're slipping and some of these cracks in their new-found adult lives are swallowing them whole.  And forever.

There is shared grief here … this student’s friends who knew there were issues yet did not know what to do or where to turn.  This student’s parents who may have been unaware of the extent of their child’s difficulties or had been unsuccessfully trying to secure help.  And the grief that we all need to share because of the lack of safety nets for our 18 - 21-year-old children who are dealing with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol issues, and other issues that are pushing them to despair.

I’m a parent too.  Of a young adult who has also experienced difficulties.  I know the fights involved and the “systems” that work against parents in the quest of their lives.  Few things cut through a person’s existence like feeling helpless … like knowing someone is struggling yet being told that information cannot be shared … like knowing that the line between having another day to fight and the last day can be hair thin.

My heart goes out to this student.  No child -- and yes, whether 18 or 25, they are still children -- should be alone, unable to cope, and without the supports they need.  There are resources such as Active Minds (www.activeminds.org) working hard to raise awareness and garner support for college students with mental health issues.  We hear about these stories every day.  Yet when it happens to your child or in your community, it drives home the fact that some things have to change.  What are we waiting for?

-Debra I. Schafer, CEO

 

It's All About Having Choices

Walk down the aisle of the supermarket and what do you see?  Choices.  More corn flakes, types of ice cream, and varieties of toilet paper than anyone needs.  Yet it's there...choices.  The reasons (and this isn't a marketing discussion) involve wanting to target and satisfy various preferences since not everyone eats whole wheat bread or wants shredded cheese.  So why all the fighting about education? Listened to another discussion on MSNBC yesterday about public education.  Education Nation is one of their signature features and I applaud them (and everyone) who places education at the top of the list.  Yet what I seem to keep hearing is that public education is *the* way - that it's the only type of education that deserves our attention, funding, and resources.  The hard work being done to turn the tide in our struggling public schools is no different than the work being done in charter or alternative schools.  Each are working to meet the education needs of our children, albeit differently.  So if "choice" defines our society, why is education any different?  What makes public education better than any other education option and, as importantly, shouldn't the choices parents exercise in this regard receive equal attention - and respect - for the work they, too, are doing to educate our children?

I understand the premise of public education and indeed there are many districts, schools, and teachers doing a terrific job of educating our children in these settings.  But just like soy products and scented detergent aren't right for everyone, the same applies to education.  School isn't a one-size-fits-all issue and this certainly applies when we talk about, for example, the types of instruction and environment within which education occurs.  Children have different learning styles and function better in certain settings when their individual needs are met.  And in order to meet them, there have to be choices.  Otherwise, it's the old "trying to fit a square peg in a round hole" adage still at work.

There are kids who thrive in large public schools yet there are others who find success in smaller charter schools.  There are parents who choose religious education for their children and others who would opt for private school if provided with this option.   Each option is worthy of our attention and support because if it was your child struggling in their current educational placement, wouldn't you want viable choices to evaluate?  I know I did.  The point is that today, education is not one thing but rather a spectrum of options.  The days of school equating to all children attending their local public school are over.  And thankfully so.

If the goal is to satisfy the need for our children to learn and if the reality is that every child learns differently, choice must be part of the discussion.  And if the reality is that environment is a key factor to a child's ability to learn, then it follows that having choices vs. assuming that public school - or any option - is *the* answer is the only way.  Thirty years ago, the choices available for parents in evaluating school options for their children were slim at best; today we have a range of options, making for a far richer "shopping" experience.

The bottom-line goal is to help ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school.  And because we define success differently for everyone, we must define education similarly as well.  My support for education runs broad and deep in all its forms, yet I equally support the word that needs to follow it...choice.

 

It's Halfway Through The School Year - So How Are Things Going?

January/February are typically brutal months - subzero temperatures, flu, snow days...everyone's counting the minutes until spring.  But if you're the parent of a child struggling in school, this time of year is about far more than the weather and health.  It's the halfway point in the school year which often means that school struggles morph into full-blown crisis situations. It doesn't matter whether your child is in 4th or 11th Grade, whether your child has Asperger's Syndrome or your teen has behavioral issues.  What does matter is that it's time to ask yourself (and honestly answer), "How are things going?"  For millions of children, the answer is not so well.  And for the millions of parents standing behind their children, the realities are as harsh as the weather.  And these harsh realities impact everything - home, work, families.  Everything.

So now what?

If your child has not been evaluated yet is facing mounting struggles in school, now is the time to pursue an evaluation.  School can conduct it, but it's best to pursue an independent evaluation conducted by a clinician of your choosing.  It often takes weeks if not longer to secure appointments, so after you dig your car out of the snow, start moving on it.

If your child is on an IEP and you have not reconvened your team since the school year began, it's time to call a meeting.  Prepare to discuss goals and progress.  Prepare to bring any data you have collected (and yes, parents should be collecting data too).  Prepare to advocate for changes, whether to services or supports ... whatever is not working needs to be reexamined.

If your child is on a 504, review all the accommodations to see if they are still appropriate now that half of the school year is behind you.  Make sure the school is actually implementing the accommodations as well and doing so consistently, particularly if your child is in middle and high school where multiple teachers come into play.

If your child is regressing, time to focus on data.  If your child is not making progress, yes...it's "data time" as well.  It's essential that you are requesting and gathering data from school, from outside supports (e.g. private tutoring, speech therapy), and that you are also providing data from home.  Remember that IEPs are not solely focused on academics - think social, behavioral, developmental, and functional needs as well.  So if you're not seeing progress, whether within or outside of the school environment, this information needs to be shared with the IEP team.

Parents often focus on the here and now - makes perfect sense since if things are not going well today, it's difficult to look a few years (or months) into the future.  Yet remember...the goal of an IEP or 504 is to help prepare your child for life after high school which goes far longer and includes far more than school.  So if things aren't going well today, you still have half a school year left to make things right.  Or at least, better.

Bullying and Tragedy

I would be remiss if I did not weigh in on the recent suicide of a bright, talented young man from Rutger's whose world was destroyed by two classmates out for a laugh.  To say that I am equally angered and heartbroken would be an understatement. Over the past decade, I have worked with hundreds upon hundreds of parents whose children have suffered bullying, harassment, and worse at the hands of peers.  Doesn't matter the grade -- 1st Grade, 5th Grade, 10th Grade, college.  And while attention to these issues has increased, so too has the number of young people who feel frightened, overwhelmed, without support, and as though whatever they are facing can not be handled any longer.

We have instituted "anti-bullying" programs in schools, churches, and synagogues ... started groups to address self-esteem issues for teens and special education issues in classrooms ... provided platforms for college students to stand-up and speak about the issues most important to them.  Yet this week, several children have ended their lives because clearly, things are not working.

We are losing our children.  Bright, talented, sensitive, aware children.   Children who were on the path to adulthood and who may have made contributions to our world that could have changed it for the better.  We can shake our heads and collectively mourn or can say "enough" and start to do something about it.

Are we raising our children to respect themselves and others, to value differences, and to embrace all perspectives and experiences?  Are we demonstrating a clear intolerance for anyone or anything different from ourselves?  What messages are we giving, both verbally and by our actions?  And what could be the consequences?

We are at a crossroads and we can either continue along the path we've been walking or can make a decision to change.  I cannot imagine the grief that this student's parents, family, and friends are experiencing.  What I can imagine is that this young man deserved the respect that we all desire.   And a precious life has been lost.

Parents -- Your Time Is Now

I've been closely following all the media attention over the past week regarding education.  Finally, our national attention has turned in this direction and policy makers, business leaders, and educators have had their "smack on the side of the head" moment recognizing the direct correlation between the education of our children and our future in virtually every area of life. On a recent Philadelphia newscast following the opening night of "Waiting for Superman," a board member from a fairly large school district in the Philadelphia suburbs spoke the words that I've been speaking for years...parents need to learn to navigate the system.  Finally...someone on the "other side" of the table has said it.  Parents are an integral part of this process and have been excluded from the discussion for too long in part because they lack the knowledge of the system on a micro level -- their school district, their school, their child's class, and their child.

Are there pockets of parents -- and individual parents -- who have been and continue to be outspoken advocates for education?  You bet.  Yet the reality is that there are millions of children struggling in school and while the statistics paint a picture that no adult should want to see, the problem remains the disconnect between the national stats and the individual child.  Making the messages resonate so that parents finally understand that the issues are really talking about one child -- theirs -- and that their role in partnering with their child along the education journey  is the only way to change the status quo.

Whether your child is in 4th Grade, 10th Grade, or college ... whether your child is reading below grade level or has been diagnosed with a learning difference ... whether your child is attending a charter school or a private school ...  your involvement is a critical part of ensuring that your child is making measurable progress toward clearly established goals.   We can speak about policy change, reform, teacher accountability, math and reading levels, competitive nations, and a host of other key issues, each of which are part of the mosaic of education.  Yet without the active involvement of parents at every level of the discussion from the kitchen table overseeing math homework to active participation on school boards, real change will be a "stop and start" proposition.

It's October...early in the school year.  Commit to getting off the sidelines and into the game.  Volunteer one hour per week at school.  Attend school board meetings.  Start truly measuring your child's progress on a weekly basis.  Use data to track where you child is today and where he/she may be in two weeks.  Stop sitting on the sofa watching the media messages and stand up and do something.

Your child's future is depending upon your involvement.  The time is now.

Navigation means...

Determining a course... Plotting a route...

Heading a movement.

I suppose heading a movement is precisely what I'm doing -- the movement to educate and empower parents to be informed and skilled parent advocates for their children.

For some, it's navigating the route into and through special education.   Perhaps you have a 7-year-old who was just diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome or a 13-year-old who has had an IEP for years yet things simply are not working and progress is not being made.

For others, it's determining the course for transitioning between middle and high school or high school into college.   Perhaps your child just entered the middle school "madness" and is already struggling or you and your 11th Grader are trying to figure out whether college is a real option and if so, how.

Whether you find yourself in the early phases of the process (i.e. a "novice") or have been working to maneuver for some time (i.e. a "veteran") ... whether you regard yourself as a "full-time, stay-at-home" parent (a term I truly dislike) or are working to balance your job and home responsibilities, I'll be sharing information, resources, and yes ... thoughts (some you'll like and others you may not) to help you navigate through the most important job your child has ... education.  Your child needs your voice and my role is to be sure it's strong, clear, and expert-level.

I hope you will share your thoughts as well.  Looking forward to this new dialogue...

Debra