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Archive for October, 2016

Presentation on Inclusion: A Parent’s Perspective

Below is the text of my portion of the Inclusion Presentation from last week’s PTO meeting.  It’s my impression that it was well-received by the audience, and I hope it served it’s intended purpose of putting a personal face on the topic of Inclusion.

My name is Alison Lobron, and I’m the mom of S in grade 5 and G in grade 3. My son G has an autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. He has been receiving Special Education services from Newton Public Schools since he enrolled in the Newton Early Childhood Program on his third birthday.

When G was first diagnosed with autism, and later with ADHD, I knew very little about either disorder. I have found the teachers and specialists at Newton Public Schools to be an invaluable resource in learning about how to understand my child’s unique neurological wiring, and how to best support his growth and development.

It is my hope that by sharing with you a little bit about our journey, that it can help paint a more detailed picture of how special education works at Franklin School. I’d like to begin by reading an excerpt from a blog post I wrote in the spring of 2014, when G was in Kindergarten.

Ever since G was a toddler, he has struggled with learning how and when rules apply.  Sometimes, he will over generalize.  If he is told to be quiet in the sanctuary at our synagogue one time (during services), then he will be quiet in the sanctuary always (no matter how loud and raucous everyone else is being).  He doesn’t recognize social cues…  he just remembers that last time we were in this place, he was told to be quiet.

Sometimes he will under generalize.  The other day, he put a hot French fry in his mouth and burned his tongue.  I taught him to look at the steam coming off the French fry.   The steam is a clue that the French fry is hot.  Blow on it first, it will cool off.  After ten repetitions, it seemed like he got it.  Until the next day, when we sat down for lunch and there was steam coming off his Mac and Cheese.  I assumed he wouldn’t put it in his mouth…  as we discussed JUST YESTERDAY that steam means the food is hot.  But I was thinking like me.  To me, steam means the food is hot.  To G, steam means a French fry is hot.  Steam coming off Mac and Cheese might mean something completely different.  So, he pops the noodle in the mouth…  and guess what?  Steam coming off Mac and Cheese is EXACTLY THE SAME as steam coming off French fries.

So how does this play out at school? In order to be successful in school, students need to learn school rules, and appropriate behavior for the classroom, the lunchroom, the playground, etc. We are all parents here. We all know how hard it is to get our kids to learn and follow rules for an extended period of time- like for an entire school day. This challenge is compounded when you have a tendency to over and undergeneralize. Some kids will learn and apply rules easily, and other kids will need more support. This variation of need is addressed by a system known as a Tiered Interventions.

Tiered Intervention works in the following way. There are three levels of support when it comes to teaching expected behavior and addressing inappropriate behavior. The first level of support is referred to as “Tier One”. Tier One supports are for all students. One of the main components of Tier One at Franklin School is Responsive Classroom. Responsive Classroom, when implemented with fidelity, puts in place all the things that most students need. Explicit review of behavioral expectations let students know what kind of behavior is appropriate in the gym vs the cafeteria vs the hallway vs the classroom. I strongly believe this is helpful for all children, but it is definitely true for a child who tends to over or undergeneralize. Morning meetings give students of all abilities the social skills they need to connect with other kids. Specific teacher language that is consistent from the classroom teacher to the lunchroom aide to the principal takes all the guess work out of trying to figure out what each new grown up wants students to do.

All of the Tier One supports are important for G, but they’re not enough. He also needs some individualized supports in order to be successful. These supports come from Tier Two (Show communication log, social story, Social Detective Book). When G was in preschool and kindergarten, he also received supports from Tier Three. At that time, even with all the support from Tier One and Tier Two, G would exhibit some “externalized behavior” – especially non-compliance. As a Tier Three support, his behavior was closely monitored by a Behavior Therapist. (Show some kind of data chart). The BT offered strategies to his teacher and aide, and eventually G developed the skills he was lacking. Because of his disabilities, he will always need some level of support, but it gives me a lot of joy to think about the supports that he no longer needs.

I want to say one more thing about G’s experience here at Franklin, and this is parent to parent. G has made such amazing strides, and has many strengths. But he is also vulnerable. Kids with special needs are about 60% more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Last year, some of the kids in G’s grade discovered G’s difficulties in learning rules. They created a game I like to call, “Let’s see what we can get G to do.” Most of the things they got him to do were fairly innocuous, like licking the table in the cafeteria. However, one day we were on the playground after school. A group of boys all picked up rocks and made a plan to throw the rocks on the count of three. They counted to three, and all the boys dropped the rocks, except for G. G didn’t realize he was being baited, and went ahead and threw the rock.

Fortunately, G has a strong team. One of the behavioral specialists went into the classroom and did a series of lessons on standing up to peer pressure and also how to be a good friend. The specialists worked in conjunction with his classroom teacher to address the needs of all the students and establish more supportive classroom norms.

G has been well-served by Newton Public Schools for the last five years. I couldn’t imagine what our lives would be like right now, if we hadn’t had access to the dedicated teachers and specialists here at Franklin. I also believe that the Tier One supports that are available to all students here at Franklin are precisely the kind of supports that make a difference for all students and help us build the kind of inclusive community we’d all like to have for our children.

 

 

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Changing the Conversation – Part 3

I did meet with Ms. A and Ms. S. after vacation… and it was the start of an amazing conversation. To parents of typically developing kids, the world of Special Education must seem very mysterious and confusing. When the administrators tried to assure parents at the meetings that they had taken many steps to address the behaviors within the classroom, the words fell flat. I think that is largely because most people aren’t familiar with the breadth and depth of interventions that can be implemented when trying to address challenging behavior. As a parent who has been a witness to behavior modification plans of all stripes and colors, I could easily fill in the gaps that the administrators left in their communication. But most parents would not have the experience to do this.

What would it take to fill that knowledge gap? How could we change the conversation so that parents of typically developing kids could have some of the same understanding that those of us with special needs kids have?

Ms. A was excited to bring the idea back to her ESP team. The idea was well-received by her colleagues. They started working on an “Introduction to Inclusion” workshop over the summer.

Meanwhile, back in our neck of the woods, our new principal started work over the summer. Wouldn’t you know, the top item on his agenda was sharing information about Inclusion with the parent community. In fact, he planned to dedicate the first PTO meeting of the year to this topic.

And so it is that the pieces started coming together. We met as a team: the new principal, the ESP team, myself and another parent. We brainstormed how to get the message out to the parent community. How to validate some of the very real concerns that came out of last year’s difficult situation, while at the same time reversing some of the misconceptions that had taken root. It was a very exciting process.

At a certain point, I felt compelled to make a decision about whether I wanted to speak at the presentation, or listen as part of the audience. Part of me knew the answer before I’d even posed the question to myself.

As an activist, you often walk the fine line between personal privacy and advocacy. I always think long and hard before I share personal details about my life or my children’s lives. In this case, I decided that advocacy needed to trump privacy. This presentation needed a human face to it in order for our message to hit home. It filled me with trepidation, to return to the same room that had been filled with angry, frustrated parents and share a personal story, but I felt it was important to do so.

Changing the Conversation – Part 2

I agonized over those meetings for a quite some time. Long after the final meeting, when it was announced that next year’s fifth grade would be broken into four classrooms instead of three, and that extra support from the ESP team would be in place from the beginning of the year, echoes of these meetings still reverberated in my mind.

I agonized over those meetings… but I had no idea how to address the misconceptions and faulty assumptions that had been voiced so forcefully.

Several weeks later, I arrived at a turning point. We were invited into S’s classroom for a Writer’s Celebration. Before the official Celebration took place, we parents observed the teachers walk the kids through the opening steps of their day, including a Morning Meeting. While I had interacted with S’s teachers on many occasions, this was the first time I had seen them in action.

I was amazed and delighted at how talented they were! I studied and tried to implement best practices from Responsive Classroom for years when I worked for Project Aspire. As part of that job, I observed dozens of teachers in classrooms all over Boston and the surrounding areas. The teaching I saw that morning at our neighborhood school was among the best I’d ever seen. Period.

My brain was racing, and I knew I somehow had to capture what I was seeing. I grabbed a piece of scrap paper from the shelf and started taking notes. As soon as I got home that day, I wrote an email to S’s teachers.

Dear Ms. A. and Ms. S.,

 Thank you for inviting us into your classroom today.

 I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to witness/participate in a Morning Meeting.  It was so great!

I can’t remember if I shared all the details with you…  but in my past life I was the assistant director of program called “Project Aspire” (it was a small project based out of Harvard Grad School of Education).  The goal of our program was to support the social/emotional learning of students, and most of our work was based on Responsive Classroom.  I hope you don’t mind, but I took a few notes while I was in your class this morning of all the awesome things I saw.

  • Visual schedule (in words and pictures) that clearly delineated the schedule for the day + expectations for what students should be doing at each juncture
  • A *very* thoughtfully structured reward system, as evidenced by the timer and tracking system on the board
  • Frequent positive reinforcement for pro-social behavior (“Thanks for raising your hand.” “I like how you waited for me to finish.” etc)
  • The students were very aware of the behaviors they are trying to reduce (I heard you say “no blurting” several times.  S informed me that the students are also working on “no side conversations”.)
  • An emphasis on bringing the kids together in community in a FUN way
  • EVERY child was included.  Through your words and actions, you clearly value the contributions of each child….  and you model that inclusivity for the students.

 It’s been quite a challenging year.  As you are aware, there is a great deal of anxiety among parents about what is going to happen in fifth grade.  I’m hoping to be helpful (from the parent end) in channeling some of that anxious energy in a more productive direction 🙂  

 If either of you would be willing to meet with me after vacation to discuss this topic (building a stronger school/parent partnership), I would truly value your input.   

Thank you for all of your efforts on behalf of our children.  I hope you have a wonderful spring break!

 Sincerely,

Alison

I waited anxiously for a response, feeling like I could be on the verge of something very exciting. I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple of hours, I received this message:

Hello Alison,

Thank you for your thoughtful and kind email.  It is so very much appreciated!  We are so pleased that you were able to notice so many positive things, as we are working diligently to create a kind and productive classroom culture.  We would love to meet with you after vacation.  When is a good time for you to meet?  We are free Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday after school.  

Thank you for taking the time to send this email, it means a great deal to both of us!

Take Care,

Ms. S and Ms. A

I felt like I was standing on the brink of a great divide-  the gap between home and school. And here we were, reaching across the aisle, ready to move forward together.  I couldn’t wait.

Changing the Conversation – Part 1

Last year was a difficult year in my daughter’s fourth grade class. S was placed in a co-taught classroom. The co-taught classroom is a relatively new model in our district. The way it works is there are two teachers- one general ed and one special ed.   The class is comprised of typically developing students plus a small cohort of children on IEPs. The two teachers work together to oversee the education of all the kids.

It’s an innovative model, and I’ve heard stories of co-taught classrooms working very well. Last year’s co-taught was not one of those classrooms.

There were a variety of factors at play that caused the demise of the fourth grade co-taught classroom. The mix of kids did not work. There were kids in the class who just did not function well together. There was behavior that escalated, and this group of kids just ramped each other up.

The whole situation was disturbing and sad. Ever since her first day of preschool, S was always enthusiastic to go to school. While there are always bumps in the road, S usually comes out of the building at the end of the day with something positive to report. Not so last year.

I did hear from S about various interventions that were taking place in her classroom. A visit from the school psychologist, followed by a visit from the district social worker. We heard from the principal that a special educator from the Elementary Stabilization Program was working with the teachers to try and turn things around. It didn’t appear to be having any effect.

Finally, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of March, we received word from the principal that their efforts to stabilize the class in its current form had not been successful. A plan was being put in place to split the class in two. Each class would have ten students, and two teachers (general ed + special ed). This plan would be discussed in person at a parent meeting on Friday morning.

The day of the parent meeting arrived. It was horrible. Parents were understandably anxious and apprehensive. They were also angry. Our kids had been through a lot. The communication that had come from school was spotty, and didn’t give a full picture of how the breakdown in the class occurred, what interventions had been tried, and how the decision to split the class had been made. There also was no indication that serious planning was going to take place to make sure that the same issues did not recur in fifth grade. I completely understood where the anger and trepidation were coming from, because I was feeling a lot of it myself.

However, what happened in that parent meeting (as well as the three that followed) was devastating. There were many valid concerns that were raised. However, there was also an enormous amount of misinformation and false assumptions that were very hard to hear.

  • I don’t understand why you don’t just pull a kid out of the classroom and suspend him if he’s causing trouble.
  • It seems like our school doesn’t have the resources, and our teachers don’t have the skills, to educate kids with special needs.
  • Why do we use Responsive Classroom? It seems like it is the opposite of what our kids need.
  • Why do we even have these kids with special needs in our schools, anyway? Wouldn’t they be better served in their own school?
  • Why does the school district continue to invest in educating these kids? Is there any evidence that it makes a difference?

Sitting through these meetings was heartbreaking. These parents weren’t pointing the finger at my kid, as he wasn’t in this particular class. However, it was very easy for me to imagine if G had been in a class that went off the rails, that he would be among the students acting out. I couldn’t imagine walking into a meeting where people were talking about my son like that.

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