Where On The Continuum?

 

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Those of you that know me personally, or have been reading my blog for some time, are aware that I am a special education teacher and an independent special education consultant. I have a myriad number of friends with children that have some type of diagnosis. I grew up with an aunt with intellectual disabilities, and have a grandson on the autism spectrum. I have an online page for parents of children that have various special needs, and am co-founder of a parent networking and support group. I tell you all these things, not to give you a list of my credentials, but to let you know, when I speak about special education, it is from years of experience. My passion and drive has always been to educate an advocate for those individuals with disabilities, and their families.

I am “back in school” to get my Master’s degree in Autism Spectrum Disorders. My classes on transition, collaboration, and behavior have validated a lot of what I have thought for years. The other day, during class discussion, we were going back and forth about the “Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)” continuum. The continuum being from very restrictive, such as individuals living in an institution, to the very least restrictive, when children (with disability diagnoses) are in their general education classes with only a minimum of supports.

I read an article the other day, written by a mother of two children. One diagnosed with Down Syndrome and one not. The article discussed how she wanted her child with DS to have full inclusion. The author believes, in her opinion, that all children, regardless of (dis)ability, should have a fully inclusive experience at school.

Her article made me wonder. Do all parents feel this way? Is full inclusion really the best education, regardless of diagnosis, for all children? Is being with “typical” peers, using the same general curriculum, always the most appropriate learning for all involved? I took this topic to my online page for parents. Those that replied to the discussion, had some interesting perspectives. Parents told of their children, that are in full inclusion, getting in trouble frequently, and often requiring, but not receiving, more sensory breaks. Others talked about a mixture of “pull out” special ed classes and general ed, while others wanted their children out of the general ed classroom altogether, because their child was being bullied. This parent spoke, of feeling her child was safer in a special education classroom. I believe all these parents wished full inclusion would work, but unfortunately that often isn’t the reality. Maybe some of my readers  have children in full inclusion and it is working. I’d love to hear your stories.

Special education has come a long way since the enactment of Public Law 94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, forty-one years ago. Reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, over the last twenty-six years have created more opportunities for those students with disabilities, and their families. Before 1975, special education services were hit and miss. Some students, who desperately needed services, didn’t get anything at all. Even with all the good that has occurred since this time, there is still a long way to go……….

I am a firm believer in everyone having a voice. I believe in real collaboration, working together to form solutions that will be good for all involved. Do I expect perfection? Absolutely not. I doubt anything will ever be perfect……but, it can be better. Here are some questions I think about, not because I have all the answers, but because I think we need to think about these issues and consider the implications. In this way we (the families, student, schools) can make the best choices possible. Isn’t that what special education should be about?

  1. Is full inclusion always appropriate if a child is unable to work at their grade level? Should we alter the integrity of grade level curriculum in that classroom? Or are modifications always okay? How many accommodations/supports are too many to still be considered for full inclusion?
  2. Is having a special education teacher in the general education classroom for one or two academics, enough?  Does working with the special ed teacher, in the general ed classroom, make the child feel even more different? Is working one on one or in smaller groups in a special ed. classroom, wrong?
  3. What about all the non-academic activities? Some students have difficulty during unstructured times. Some students require more sensory breaks. Some students require a person to teach them and daily practice with them, social skills.
  4. Is is right to expect a general education teacher (who might have only had to take one or two special ed. classes to get their degree) to understand a myriad number of disabilities their students could have? Can we expect them to be proactive instead of reactive in their classroom behavior management? Is it fair and equitable to treat all the children the same? Does fair always mean equal?
  5. How do we keep students from being unkind to each other? Do we talk about a student’s disability to the class? In order to help the class understand “why” a student might act the way he/she does?
  6. Should the student who has a severe intellectual disability, be subjected to taking standardized tests at their grade level? (For example, should a fourteen year old with the cognitive ability of a toddler be expected to take an eighth grade test? And if so, why? How will the results even be close to any kind of accuracy?)
  7. Should a teenager with high functioning autism have less supports in his general ed classes, because he “doesn’t look like he has autism” and “we don’t want him labeled”?
  8. Is overlooking a student’s true needs, an inherent danger in inclusion, because sometimes a student doesn’t “look” like he/she needs special ed services/supports? (whatever that is supposed to mean)
  9. If/When do the rights of a child with special needs carry more weight, than a child who does not have special needs?
  10. Are we making decisions now that will ultimately benefit the student after he/she graduates? Shouldn’t all of school be preparation for life after graduation? Especially, with teenagers, how to we make sure our children will have a smooth transition?

Blog readers, what do you think? I would be interested to hear your opinions, your experiences……

 

 

Taking The Next Step

As many of my readers know, I have been a special education teacher for twenty-six years. For several of those years I have also been an independent special education consultant. I grew up with an aunt that had intellectual disability. I have a grandson on the autism spectrum. I have dear friends who have children with a myriad number of different diagnoses. About a year and a half ago, I started thinking about going back to school. (I have either been in school as a student, or as a teacher, for 43 of my 48 years. Wow. That is a lot of school.) I wanted a graduate level degree in autism spectrum disorders. Although I am a passionate advocate for all individuals with disabilities, those with autism have a special place in my heart. Last January my new adventure began.

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I have been enjoying my classes. There is something to be said for going back to school in one’s forties. I enjoyed college my first time around, and did well. (C-N Class of ’90, Go Eagles!) After receiving my bachelor of science in special education, I set out to begin teaching. Twenty-six years, with a plethora of experience later, here I am. I am back in school. My professors are probably around my age, which is kind of funny. This time around I am not intimidated by my instructors, as I was when I was in my late teens and early twenties. (Professors are not the gods of academia as once thought, but go grocery shopping and to their kids ballgames, just like the rest of us. Go figure.) I’m bringing a lot of experience to the table this go around, and have ample opportunity to show off my intellect and my razor sharp wit. (Well, okay maybe not razor sharp anymore, since I’ve mellowed with age, but definitely not dull. Just sayin’.)

In one of my classes we have been discussing transition from high school into adulthood. That transition is difficult enough for a typical high school student, but for a high school student that has a disability and has been receiving special services it can be down right overwhelming! I want to share something I wrote in one of the discussion boards about transition. We had been talking about a broader vs. more narrow perspective on this transition from high school to adulthood. I think it bears repeating.

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“Before answering these prompts, I just wanted to say that I was so into this reading. I was reading silently, but would frequently interrupt myself with, “Exactly!”, “Yes!”, and “That is what I’ve been saying!”, as I scribbled notes in the page margins with a highlighter. Honestly, this subject is one that has been on my radar for quite some time now.

Kohler (1998) describes the tenets of a broad perspective of transition for a student, as one where all classes, programs, and activities while in high school are part of a plan, that focuses on a student’s goals after high school. Each student is different, and requires a plan that addresses their individual needs, interests, and preferences. In a broad perspective, students are not treated with “cookie cutter” plans—one size fits all. This way of thinking does not just accept a checklist of transition steps, that covers legal obligation. A student’s school career is ultimately about preparing him/her for the rest of their life!

In my opinion, I feel that unfortunately, many schools still do not hold the broad perspective of transition, falling back on the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. The more narrow perspective primarily focuses on the last couple of years of a student’s high school career, and setting them up with agencies/providers for their postschool life. In the reading, (bottom of page 180) I was struck with the sentence, “Many local education agencies’ tendency to meet the letter of the law rather than the intent of the law has resulted in expanded IEP forms……”. So, true! As special education teachers we have paperwork on top of paperwork! In the case of transition, there is a bog down in the process. All of education should be preparation for life. With this in mind, shouldn’t we be concerned with everything leading up to life beyond school?

I was deeply touched by the part of the paper that discussed how schools work with college bound students, preparing them, readying them, helping them for the time when they will leave high school and step out into the “real” world. Why should it not be the same for our students that receive special services? Are they not just as worthy as a college bound student? Can’t their futures be just as bright as the ones who ace their AP courses? The narrow perspective puts our students in special education, into a box. A “to do” list. Half the time, these young people aren’t even actively involved in the plans for/about THEIR lives! I have been asked to attend IEP meetings for high school students in a consultant capacity, by parents who are desperate to have the school consider a more broad perspective for their child.

I can immediately think of a case that is a prime examples for the narrow perspective of transition. This case was a young man diagnosed with intellectual disability and several medical issues. He is extremely personable, gregarious, and doesn’t know a stranger. He is a friend to one and all. He is also very daring, and athletic. (He recently tandem jumped out of an airplane, and is a member of a rock climbing club.) In my mind, for this young man, the sky is the limit! Sadly, his transition planning was about checking off the legal boxes for his plan, per IDEA. His involvement in his own life, consisted of being asked, “What do you want to do after high school?” Because of his intellectual disability, he struggled to voice his dreams of life after high school. His mother was told that they were inviting agencies/providers to his next IEP meeting to prepare him for after graduation. He told his mother he did not want to work at the workshop. That was boring. He was not interested. He even said to his mother, “Why can’t I play on a community softball league? Why do I have to only play with the Special Olympics?” The whole situation just bothers me. I want so much more for him, than the school or the local board of DD is willing to give!

 

On the other hand, I read a story recently about a high school special education classroom that owned and operated their own coffee shop, in the school. They worked as a team, everyone was involved! They took orders from teachers and students, and delivered coffee (and baked goods!) They were learning social skills as well as business skills. They were required to collect payment for the drinks/food, and figure out change. They kept “the books” for their business, giving some of the proceeds to school based activities and functions (the rest going back into the business). Their teachers commented that the students confidence and self-esteem had flourished. They were more open to ideas, and excited about what the future might hold. I think this opportunity was a great example of a school that has a broader perspective on transitioning through high school, and being adequately prepared for the world beyond the school. These students are learning things across the board, that will help them as they step out into their communities.”

I understand that there are some students with more severe disabilities that might not be able to work out in the community. They might be learning life skills in high school, as opposed to academics. Working at a sheltered workshop might be the best placement for some of these individuals. That is fine and good. My point is that all students are unique, with their own abilities and interests. We cannot have cookie cutter responses to our students in special education, just because “we’ve always done it this way”.

Having a tailored plan requires effort. That is the point of an individualized education plan.

  • Kohler, P (1998). Implementing a transition perspective of education. In F. Rusch & J. Chadsey (Eds.), Beyong high school: Transition from school to work (pp. 179-205). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

 

 

Autism Awareness-A Call To Action!

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As some of you know, that have been reading my blog for awhile, I am a special education teacher. I am also a consultant and advocate. It has been both an interesting and rewarding choice for my life’s work. A choice that I have never regretted. At times, it has been fascinating and encouraging, and other times frustrating and overwhelming….much like life itself. There are good days and well, the not so good days.

April is autism awareness month. Those of us who are immersed in the world of autism understand that awareness is not just one month out of the year, but an every day call to action. As time goes on, more and more people are being made aware of autism because they are personally being touched by it. They have a loved one with an autism spectrum diagnosis, or a friend’s child, or a classmate or the family that sits behind you in the pew at church. Even though the CDC just announced that so far this year the numbers of autism diagnoses are stable, but up to this point, the number of autism diagnoses has accelerated over the the past 25-30 years. In the late 1980’s autism was known about, but considered fairly rare. My college professors said that I, as a special education teacher, would probably have more students with Down Syndrome or intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities than a child with autism. At that time autism was about 1 in every 10,000 births. By 2000 it was 1:150. Then it was 1:88. Now it is 1:68.

The people in this epic battle with autism, don’t always agree on what causes autism. They might not agree on what are the best therapies. Whether or not a strict diet will help ease the physical pain that often accompanies those with autism. Individuals with high functioning autism have their own issues with which to contend. “Oh, he doesn’t look autistic. I think he will outgrow it. Just give him time.” (As if, there is a specific autism “look” and “giving him time” only delays the intervention that is desperately needed.) Sometimes supports are overlooked because he seems “so normal” accept for his quirkiness. It is a struggle.

The journey with autism is real for a lot of parents. All these children that have been diagnosed over the past quarter century are growing up. What do families do when their child with autism grows up? The supports for adults with autism are sorely lacking. As these children grow up and age out of the school system, there will be a tsunami of autism in the adult world, like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We, as a society, cannot abandon these individuals or their families. Burying our heads in the sand, will do nothing to solve the problem.

This is a call to action. Not just to wear a special color on a special day, but to stand up and advocate every day. To make a difference in the lives of these individuals……

Autism Stats:

*Prevalence of ASD is estimated at 1:68 births (CDC,2014)

*It is five times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

*There is no known cause or cure.

*No two persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are alike.

*Early intervention (EI) is key! Outcomes improve when diagnosis and intervention occur early.

(stats from: OCALI- Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence)

A previous, older post of mine,on autism….notice the difference in the stats from the mid 2000’s to now.

https://gibsongirl247.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/autism-is-not-a-dirty-word-2/

 

 

You Might Be The One To Make A Difference

 

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I read something not long ago about the church. This particular article focused on families that have children with disabilities. Being a special education teacher, and a vocal advocate for those with disabilities, these kinds of articles always catch my attention.

I have heard over and over again from parents who have children on the autism spectrum, about how they want to go to church. They want to worship with fellow believers. They love singing both praise music as well as old, familiar hymns. They want to quiet their souls so they can hear a word from God. The thing is, they don’t always feel welcomed when they cross over the threshold of the church building.

Oh, it is not always the words that say, “You’re not welcome”. Sometimes it is the stares. Sometimes it shows itself as impatience with or fear of someone who looks or acts differently. Sometimes it isn’t intentional. Sometimes people just don’t know what to do, how to act, or what to say…..so they don’t do anything.

And with that, the door slams shut on a vast mission field.

Autism. Intellectual Disability. Learning Differences. Anxiety or Depression. Emotional Issues. A different physical appearance. ADD/ADHD. Health Impaired. Chronic medical issues. Sometimes the disability is obvious, but often times it is not………..until it is.

As followers of Christ, He calls us to love our neighbors…whether they are literally next door, down the street, on the job, at school…..or at church on Sunday morning.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31

This Sunday open your eyes and look around your church. See people.

You never know……you might be the one to make a difference in someone’s life.

The world is desperate for those who are willing step out of their comfort zones.

I Can’t Go Wrong

102_3462 The beginning of that school year was the beginning of my career as a special education teacher. I was twenty-two years old, just beginning to put my knowledge to the test. Looking back, I didn’t know near as much as I thought I did. Isn’t that the truth for most of us, when we were in our twenties? Big on ideas, not real big on life experience.

The morning was underway. Attendance had been taken, and learning groups had already begun. Bobby*, a sixth grader, wasn’t there yet. He was late. The classroom clock ticked off the first moments of the school day. The door opened and in walked Bobby*. He came up to me, eyes averted, and mumbled something about being late. I, in my own naive youth, abruptly replied to him with, “I understand you are late to school, but it is important for you to be on time. Now you are going to be behind this morning. Hurry up and put your stuff in your desk, so we can get you in your group.” My teacher mindset appreciated punctuality and I wanted to get that across to him, but Bobby* wasn’t finished.  He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. Last night, with all the rain and wind, the living room wall caved in. I was up most of the night with my Daddy putting tarp up, so our stuff didn’t get wet.”

Tears began to well up in my eyes. I looked away. Now it was my turn to mumble an apology. This poor boy, who was a good student, and had a tender heart, after a difficult and stressful night, now had to listen to his teacher gripe at him. He had helped his Daddy. He was doing important work to save his family’s house. I felt badly about my cavalier attitude, not comprehending what it meant to live in a house that was weather worn and crumbling.

I learned a lesson that day, one that stuck with me. I learned a lesson that didn’t just apply to my career in teaching, but to life. Things are not always what they seem, in fact many times, we only skim the surface of what is going on with people. We often jump to our own conclusions about others because it is more convenient.

And that is wrong….. so wrong.

None of us is perfect, and most are fighting battles that others know nothing about….because of this, I can’t go wrong treating everyone with kindness.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32 NIV

*Bobby is not my former student’s real name.

Sometimes In Life, A Door Opens…

Zi6_0127As many of my readers already know, special education has been a driving force, for most of my life. Maybe I should say, helping and encouraging individuals with special needs and their families has been my driving force. It is one of the things in my life that brings me joy, and contributes to who I am as a person. God put a desire in my heart, a calling, to be a voice for those who deserve to be heard.

Sometimes in life, a door opens, and we are unsure if we should walk through it. Life might change….and change can be scary. It is often times easier to just stand for awhile, in the threshold, unsure of whether or not to take that next step. With that said, a couple of months ago, my husband and I walked through that proverbial door and embarked on a new adventure. We took an opportunity that allows us to create ways to help, encourage, and advise families of those with special needs.

Please check out our new website. The website is still “in progress”, as a matter of fact we feel the site should always be evolving and growing to be all we want it to be, while still taking steps toward our dream. Would you help us to help others by sharing the blog and website? Would you like, pin, share and retweet? If you, yourself, have a family member with a disability or you know someone who does, would you let them know about the website as a resource? Make comments. Ask questions. Be real. Help us make a positive difference in the lives of others.  The most recent addition to the website is the first in a series of videos I’m calling “SpecEd Answers”.  Check it out!

You Are Not Too Old

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The other week, on my blog, I posted about dusting off a dream. I’ve been excited about making an official leap into having my own business. I have been an intervention specialist (sped. instructor) for the majority of my adult life. Even before I worked in special education professionally, I worked in it with my heart. Decades later, with much experience, many stories, and multitudes of people that I have helped in some way, I wanted to start my own consulting business. I have been consulting and doing advocacy work with parents and their children informally for several years. Recently, I have felt led to do more, say more, help more, and try harder. My husband continues to be a wonderful support for me, always having faith in my abilities and seeing my heart, even when my vision sometimes became blurred.

A couple of days ago, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I was wondering if I had what it takes to do this big thing? Would I be able to follow through? Was I too old to take more graduate level classes? Would parents care about this? What if the whole thing just blew up in my face? Sometimes negative self talk is more dangerous than anything else we may come across.

So, this morning, I arose early as I normally do. I straightened the house, started the coffee, and fixed breakfast. I slipped into my boots, grabbed the feed pail, and started over to the barn. The morning was quiet and the clouds were low on the horizon. Peaceful. Just then, God stepped into time and space. My time. My space. Although His voice was not audible, He spoke to my heart. Now, I am just as sane as you are, but something happened there in the yard, on the way to the barn. God spoke. He said, in a whisper only my spirit could discern, “You are not too old.” Just like that. I nearly dropped the chicken feed. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I stood rooted to the place. I looked out over the back field, tinged with the early pinks and purples of the morning. “You are not too old.”

I began to think about all the people that I’ve read about in the Bible, from the time that I was small. Many times, God had His children wait. Years would pass. Life went on. They wondered. They wandered. They grew older.  Until God told them, “go”.

“You are not too old.”

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isa. 55:9