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.

 

No Means No...Or Does It?

We all know that "no means no" and we play by that rule.  But, is there ever a need or reason to push back against the answer no?  In one critical area, yes. Ask any parent of a child in special education and they'll tell you just how many times they've heard the word no - or countless variations of the same - to requests, suggestions, and even demands made for something their child needs in school.  It could be an extra speech therapy session to work on social language skills or an aide to enable a bright child with Asperger's Syndrome to be fully included in school.  Maybe it's an alternative environment for lunch or a sensory integration evaluation.  No matter the "ask," the answer is often no.  But the story doesn't end here.

Over the past week, I've spoken with many parents who have expressed their total frustration with their child's school and IEP team.  This isn't to say that there aren't success stories where things are going well.  But far too often, this is hardly the case.  They've asked for things and have been refused.  They've begged for things and have been told it's not an educational need.  They've spent thousands of dollars on private evaluations and therapies which often yield critical information and results that their child's school team has either failed or refused to address.  Any wonder why so many parents are fed-up and worn from the fight?

No is not the end of things when it involves a child in special education.  And while each situation, child, and team is unique, there are a few things that parents need to keep in mind.

  1. If you're told "no" after going into your child's IEP meeting to beg for something because your "heart of hearts" knows it's needed, forget it.   You need to go in with hard data to support the need.
  2. If you're told "no" or encounter resistance to something you've requested, put the request and facts in writing and ensure that there is an action step (e.g. please respond back to us in writing) and deadline (e.g. by April 10th).
  3. If you're told "no" and have been clearly refused, request Prior Written Notice which requires that the school delineate their reasons - in writing - for the refusal.

If you're able (financially and otherwise) to secure private services for something your school district has said no to providing, make certain that your private clinician or provider is capturing data to demonstrate that your child is making progress.  School is all about progress and if your child has failed to make progress prior to the start of a service or support that you're accessing privately (and which the district refused) and then begins to make progress afterward, you need all possible documentation to present to the district.

Bottom-line is this:  Schools will often say no - sometimes using reasons that leave parents shaking their heads in disbelief and then their fists in anger, but that's not the end of the story.  Advocating for your child in school is not for the faint of heart nor is it a short-term process.  Rather, it requires parents to keep "upping the ante" by understanding that "no" is often the first response but may not be the last.

Struggling Kids Become Adults ... Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I'm sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities - learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental. This isn't about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it's about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It's about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger's Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here's the reality - acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I've read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we've heard about this for some time.  And while I'll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to "smoke and mirror" their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes - and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters - because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn't just appear...many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn't a parent who doesn't want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won't be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won't find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn't it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they're young, instead of hoping they'll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.

A Price Tag On Our Children...?

This is a rant.  Maybe a vent.  Not sure the difference but here it is anyway. A colleague contacted me today asking whether I knew of someone who could help support a middle school child with autism.  The person was needed at school from arrival until the end of the day including lunch, recess, specials...you get the picture.  These positions are generally advertised on school district websites or placed on Craigslist, but this individual was looking to me for a person with experience and training in this arena.  When I asked what the position was paying, I'd like to say I was shocked but I wasn't.  I just shook my head in disbelief (as I've done many times before) at the continued lack of understanding about the importance of this role.  Not to mention the pathetic compensation.

An aide for a child with special needs is like a limb.  The child can maneuver without it but not nearly as well.  And surely not well enough to compensate for whatever deficits exist.  So like a limb, it's essential to understand how it works, its purpose...and its worth.  Hard to imagine putting a price tag on an arm but when it comes to an aide in school, that's exactly what's happening.  And the current price tag isn't even close to hitting the bar.

I know all too well about school districts cutting budgets and services, that music and art departments have been eliminated, and that many school-based activities no longer exist.  I also know that educating - and this is more than academics - children requiring special supports in school is not an option but a requirement.  This means aides for many children and the role these individuals play have been undervalued for far too long.

Paying an aide $7.50, $9.00, or $11.25 per hour to teach, reteach, coach, mentor, monitor, guide, support, supervise, advocate, run interference, capture data, collaborate with teachers, and communicate with parents is insanity.  Pet walkers are paid $15-$25/hour (and as I've said before, I have nothing against pets).  I could list any number of roles or positions paid more than aides.  But here we're talking about a person who often remains closest to a child who is struggling in school and needs the best (yes, I know ... "appropriate") supports possible, and are asking them to undertake herculean tasks for pennies.

For many children and teens with autism, learning disabilities, or behavioral challenges, their success - no, their ability to make it from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. - is often dependent upon the support and expertise of a single person who is expected to work wonders while wondering about their worth.  As I've said about many things regarding the needs of children struggling in school, "it's not a nicety, but a necessity."  And this certainly applies to aides.  It's not all about the money - many become aides to make a difference in the life of children, but when we're talking about an adjunct to a child, we can and must do far better.  The success of our children in school and beyond depends upon it.