Within the last month, I’ve had 3 meetings with special education teams in three different schools for three different children. Two of the children are my own and one is a current client of mine. My client is a 7th grader with severe learning disorder, ADHD and dyslexia. I requested her meeting because she is verbalizing stress at school and I wanted to implement a stress management plan for her to utilize her coping skills with hopes that it would help her with focus at school. The meeting was held with very specific guidelines. The school informed me that I would not be allowed to discuss her educational needs during this meeting that I would only be able to discuss her stress and mental health issues. I was not very pleased with this response from them as I find it very hard to discuss the mental health concerns without addressing the underlying causes for the mental health concerns which are related to her learning disabilities. With that being said, the meeting was successful and they agreed to meet with me to discuss my educational concerns for my client at another meeting.
My daughter is 8 and was just diagnosed with auditory processing disorder. I requested her meeting because she was beginning to show signs of school refusal, anxiety and depression at home. My goal of the meeting was to request academic testing because I was questioning a processing disorder. The first 90% of her meeting was complete and utter frustration as the school questioned me about my daughter’s symptoms and told me they were home issues and that I should get her set up with an outside counselor. Once again, completely dismissing the fact that my daughter only has these symptoms during the school week and as a direct result of her struggles with school. By the end of the meeting they finally agreed to test my daughter based off her lack of reading progress.
My son is 7 with a diagnosis of speech and language impairment and sensory processing disorder. He has an IEP at school for speech only. I requested his meeting as a means of being proactive for next year. My concerns were that due to his sensory processing disorder (which the school refuses to recognize), he benefits from movement and sensory breaks in the classroom. I wanted this simply stated in his IEP. I was not requesting any change in service, but simply a note to inform other teachers that my son benefits from movement breaks. This was denied because the teacher stated that he is “accessing the curriculum just fine”. She stated that “all the children get movement breaks and all the children benefit from them”. Because she would not support my simple request, he was denied this additional note in his IEP plan. I left that meeting hysterically crying in frustration with the special education system.
I am still in the learning stages of what is and is not allowed with school special education. My newest findings is that of all the diagnosis listed above, three of them are not recognized as learning disorders. This makes the process of getting adequate help for a struggling child a complete nightmare. At least that has been my experience. I am also learning that the school does not legally need to accept outside documentation from doctors and other professionals even if it is ethically in the child’s best interest. Legally a school is responsible to provide accommodations if and only if the child is having trouble “accessing the curriculum”. What I am also finding is that often times the school’s testing and observations show nothing while outside testing is much more detailed. I finally received my daughter’s academic testing which showed absolutely nothing in terms of her struggles. All of her testing for learning and processing disorders were negative. The only recommendation they made was for her to seek outside professional counseling. Her outside testing done with an audiologist showed severe auditory processing delay/disorder just as I suspected. I have her meeting this upcoming week to see if this school is going to accept this diagnosis and give her an IEP or 504 plan with the accommodations recommended by the audiologist. Based on passed experience I am not feeling hopeful.
With all of this said, I am still finding ways to help my children and my clients. I am finding ways to work around the gaps in the special education system. I am finding that complaining about it and fighting with the school is not always the most beneficial. In my experience it has taken a lot of energy from me and gained little to no results. So instead I am finding ways to raise and teach children how to understand their disabilities and advocate for themselves. I am finding that when the child approaches the teacher or counselor with their needs, they are more likely to be met. I am learning that building verbal skills both receptive and expressive language is most important. My plan on moving forward with very little support for my children and some of my clients is to continue to advocate for them by keeping communication open with their teachers and teaching children how to express their needs. The following are some ways I am doing this.
1. Advocate for a specific type of teacher for your child. At the end of each school year, I write up a letter to the principal with my child’s diagnosis and symptoms giving a brief description of what he/she struggles with. I then state the type of teacher my child is most successful with. This might include a teacher who is sensory friendly, a teacher who understands auditory processing disorder, or maybe a teacher who is willing to take the time to learn about my child’s diagnosis. It may include a teacher who is structured and organized. I make sure to keep the letter simple making sure to get my most important points across so it is easy to read. This has been a very successful intervention.
2. Educate your child about his or her diagnosis. What and how you choose to discuss your child’s diagnosis is up to you, but I find that it is very helpful to be open and honest about a child’s testing and results. You can start from the moment your child begins testing by making sure they understand why they are being pulled out of class and what the teachers are doing and why. Once you get the results both inside and outside of school begin talking with your child about them. I use children’s books. You can order tons of books on most disorders from amazon.com. They have tons of books for kids to learn about all kinds of processing and learning disorders. Most of this books talk about symptoms of anxiety and school and how to cope with it. They are great tools. This will give your child education and verbal skills to be able to make connections with how he or she is feeling and experiencing. It has been my experience that once a child has the verbal skills they are able to communicate to you what is going on with them.
3. Make an appointment with your child each week to discuss school issues. My kids love these “appointments”. They learned very quickly what they are for and use them very well. You can start by explaining what the purpose of the appointments are. During my appointments with kids I ask very simple questions about school. I ask about all areas of school, social, emotional and academic. We even talk about the bus. I ask the same questions each week because repetition is proven to be effective in learning. You may want to even have a generic format you follow that will become more natural as you continue this process.
4. Share your child’s concerns with the teacher. Once your child begins to express his or her worries and concerns you can start by sharing them with the teacher. Before sharing information with a child’s teacher, I always ask the child if he or she is okay with me sharing his or her concerns with the teacher. Most of the time the answer is yes. If it is no and I really think the teacher should know about it I am usually able to convince the child to say yes by simply being honest with them about why I think the teacher should know. If a child says no and I am okay with it, then I respect their answer and follow up with them the next day or session to make sure it has not gotten worse. It is important that the child feel respected and heard. It is important that the child learn trust.
5. Be mindful of how you express your thoughts and feelings to your child’s teacher. Just a small tip…it has been my experience that having a positive relationship with the teacher is more effective than a negative one. I made the mistake of expressing my frustrations to my son’s teacher this year. She was the same teacher my daughter had the year before. She insisted that my daughter struggled with confidence and nothing more. She did not respect my concerns as a parent or as a professional. She turned out to be wrong. So when it came time to advocate for my son, I immediately expressed my frustration to her and basically told her that I did not value her opinions. While I stand by how I feel, expressing this in such a way did not help my son at all. I watched her completely dismiss my son’s issues regardless of tons of documentation stating what his issues are. Your child’s teacher holds all the power when it comes to making changes in your child’s plan. Having your child’s teacher’s support can make all the difference in the world. What I learned from this experience is that teachers and school personnel are human beings with issues too. I think sometimes teachers and school staff take things personally and don‘t know how to deal with this so in turn they become defensive and sometimes even stubborn. While I recognize this I cannot change this nor is the teacher ever going to admit this. I probably came off somewhat attacking and now the relationship is strained which makes it very hard for me to advocate for my child and get my child’s needs met. I am finding that approaching a teacher in a positive way is much more beneficial for your child in the end.
6. Teach your child how to advocate for themselves. Unfortunately I’ve had the experience 9 out of 10 times in which the teacher or school team will tell me that they are not seeing stress in a child. I often times leave meetings feeling like they are trying to put the issues on home rather recognize that the child is simply masking their emotions. Children learn to mask their emotions as a means of survival. They fear standing out, being notice and made fun of. I always encourage the child to talk with the teacher or guidance counselor about their concerns. It means so much more coming from the child than the parent. I offer to make arrangements for the child to meet with the teacher by emailing the teacher letting them know the child would like to meet. This usually helps a ton. If the child is not quite ready to advocate, I continue to share the concerns until he or she is ready. You can even offer to make a meeting after school and assist your child in talking with the teacher. This process starts off slowly, but as your child becomes more confident and feels more supported it becomes much easier for him or her to share their feelings and concerns. Most of the time the experience will be a positive one which will reinforce the child.
7. Implement a stress management plan with your child’s teacher. Once your child is able to express his or her concerns to the teacher, help the child and teacher formulate a stress management plan in the classroom. This can be anything from taking short breaks to having accommodations made in the classroom. If accommodations are made in the classroom and they are successful, this gives you the upper hand to request a 504 plan for the following year. You now have the proof you need that shows the school that your child has been successful with the accommodations. You now also have a positive relationship with the teacher who is more than likely to be supportive.
8. Get your child involved with an after school activity that promotes wellness and builds self confidence. It is very important to choose an activity that will promote health and wellness, but also build your child’s confidence and self esteem. My daughter was involved with dance for years until we finally decided to take her out and try something else because she was struggling with processing the moves and music due to her auditory processing disorder. She was not feeling successful with dance and kids were starting to notice and pick on her. We took her out and signed her up for martial arts which is done in a group setting, but also a very individual activity. Her teacher is phenomenal and very intuitive when it comes to children, especially children with special needs. I’ve noticed a tremendous improvement in her confidence. I am most likely to recommend martial arts over any other activity for children with needs. It is however, important that you find the right instructor and studio for your child.
9. Get a therapist or coach for your child. If you feel like you are struggling to complete the above suggestions with your child, get help. A therapist can help assist you in this process and can also be a wonderful advocate for your child. It has been my experience that the schools are more likely to take input and suggestions from a child’s therapist than his/her own parents. When a therapist gets involved it becomes a medical issue in which the school is responsible for putting attention to.
10. TAKE CARE OF YOU! Most important advice as always is to make sure you as the parent are taking care of you. It is easy to put your health aside for your child. I find the process of dealing with advocating for my child be physically and emotionally exhausting which is why I run self-care groups for women. You are no good to your child if you are not mentally and physically prepared to deal with the stress and challenges that come with advocating for your child. Join a support group or talk with a therapist or life coach who can support you and encourage you to make sure your needs are met.
These are just a few things I do with my kids and my clients to help them at school when I feel the school is failing them. If you or someone you know is struggling to be heard or is feeling lost in the education process, please consider attending one of my upcoming workshops or make a life coaching appointment with me. You can learn more about my services at http://www.mindbodyspiritcounseling.net. Please feel free to contact me with questions or concerns. Don’t forget to “LIKE” https://www.facebook.com/mindbodyspiritcounseling on Facebook for up to date information and resources.