Posted in musings, quotes

it seems that our school system is failing everyone these days…

As the teacher walkout continues here in Arizona I feel like I’m just beginning to process the events and come to an opinion about it all. It’s an interesting topic for me, since I’ve always been an outsider to the school system and maintain that self-directed learning is better ideologically than the authoritarian traditional educational model we have in the US – and yet, at the same time, I recognize that the majority of children are in public schools and as a Christian who desires the good of my neighbors and community I want those public schools to be the best that they can be for the sake of the children in them. In a perfect world the school system would be fundamentally different, and I believe it is important to work towards those deep system-level changes – but in the meantime, there are children in the schools now who deserve the best our society can give them instead of being neglected in the pursuit of future goals, and pragmatic changes for their short-term benefit are a good thing.

One of my friends shared the following image on Facebook: Continue reading “it seems that our school system is failing everyone these days…”

Posted in family life

dance to the music no one else can hear

So now, having just explained in great detail why I think special ed preschool could be a great help for Rondel despite my misgivings about the public school system in general, I am going to argue the other side against myself. Hopefully writing this out will help me make a decision! And if not, hopefully it is helpful or interesting to someone else in a similar spot.

First, you should know this about Rondel.

When my son is in a highly stimulating, fun, chaotic environment, his energy ratchets up so high that he can’t always control it. Simultaneously, especially if he is hungry or tired (or if another kid is pushing his buttons), his anxiety often escalates as well. Either of these things could be a struggle independently, but when combined they can make situations very difficult for him. His body feels out of control, his emotions feel out of control, and his external environment feels out his control. In response to that, he will often take actions that on the surface appear irrational or bizarre: he may get overly aggressive in his play, wrestling after his friends have asked him to stop; he may try to run away to escape the chaos; or he may break down into incoherent tears.

Birthday parties, amusement parks, playgrounds, noisy restaurants, music class, movie theaters, and other noisy places can all cause sensory overload and meltdowns. Vigorous physical play may be avoided because of concerns about falling, sensory overload, and the potential for explosive outbursts and aggressive behaviors due to fight-or-flight reactions. Perhaps most unfortunately, the kinds of things done by the teachers who work hardest to make their classrooms fun for most kids – busy, colorful places with lots of “activity stations,” fun music, dancing, games – may be precisely the things that aggravate kids with SPD. As a result, these teachers may find that the harder they work to make class enjoyable and to involve these kids, the more they shut down or overload. It’s hard to imagine a more potent recipe for frustration and misunderstanding on both sides.

Brock Eide, The Mislabeled Child


Second, you should know this about me.

One of the greatest struggles in my life – a struggle that I have heard countless times in the lives of my friends and family as well – is feeling that I don’t belong: that there is no group of people among whom I can be completely myself and at the same time completely loved. It is out of this struggle that my parenting philosophy was born. My goal as a mother is to give my children a relationship (and ideally a whole family community) in which they will be listened to, understood, and unconditionally loved. Whatever societal forces are pressuring them to fit into a certain mold or to act a certain way, I want our home to be the safe place in which those forces have no power.

Now, I also have hopes and expectations for my children. I want them to be thinkers and readers; I want them to be wise and compassionate; I want them to love deeply and speak kindly. But even the wisest person has moments of foolishness; even the kindest person has words they regret. In those moments, I want my children to know that my love will not cease or waver, that I will always love them for who they are even as I help them grow and mature. And I want them to know that the rate of their growth is never a cause for shame, regardless of how slowly they may be progressing. The direction and the effort are the things that matter.


With both of those things in mind, putting Rondel in a special preschool designed solely to help him acquire certain skills by a certain deadline seems antithetical to my whole concept of parenthood. He is not a flowering bush that I can freely manipulate by well-timed applications of different fertilizers or hormones; he is his own person, uniquely designed and gifted, with his own path and timeline to follow. It is helpful for me to know the ways in which he is different than “normal,” so that I can anticipate his struggles instead of setting him up for failure, learn how to help him through difficult situations instead of flailing about in the dark, and access the accommodations he needs to thrive – but it isn’t helpful to focus on those differences as things that are “wrong” with him and try to fix them or train them out of him.

And my fear is that he will think just that: that we believe his way of being is inadequate or wrong, that we don’t accept him as who he is, and that we are willing to put him in an environment that stresses his sensory and emotional systems to the point of overload in an attempt to change him into someone else. It’s hard to think of a better way to demolish a child’s confidence in himself or to damage his trust in his parents’s love and understanding. When the music plays that only Rondel can hear, I want him to dance to that beat with freedom and fullness, holding nothing back in his pursuit of the calling for which God has designed him, no matter how strange or awkward that dance may appear to those who are deaf to the song. Speech therapy we can get at a private clinic, without needing to compromise our ideals in the process; the other skills he needs for life will grow in time, as he learns their value, in the context of love and peace and belonging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in musings

when tools come with tainted memories

I grew up hearing horror stories about public schools.

Every time we drove past one, my dad would comment on the chainlink fences, the buzzing alarm bells, or the thick small-windowed walls. He would tell us about Mrs. Weinstein, his fourth-grade teacher, who was so nasty as to apparently have burnt a traumatic scar into his memory. He would regale us with the tale of how in elementary school he would ask for a bathroom pass and just scream in the bathroom at the top of his lungs because he was so bored/pent up/overwhelmed by the classroom environment. He would call them “jails for kids” (although my mom would always gently reply that it was hyperbolic to go that far).

My mom didn’t have nearly so many negative things to say, but I knew that she dropped out of high school and worked her way through community college and university to get a master’s in engineering, and considered self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning to be far more valuable and efficient than teacher-dictated, extrinsically-demanded education.

After I met my husband, I learned how he had been bullied through elementary school, to the point of being anxious, angry, depressed, and aggressive as even a young child – his innate friendliness met with rejection, and his self-confidence and self-esteem dealt crushing blows that he still sometimes struggles to overcome.

And so when the supportive, understanding, encouraging women in the special needs ministry at my church encouraged me to seek an evaluation through the public school district, to see if Rondel qualified for any free services, I was apprehensive, wary, and unsure. Now that his evaluation is past and I know that he does qualify – now that the registration and enrollment paperwork sits in front of me on the table – I am still all of those things.

The woman who would be his teacher is, from what I can tell, an energetic, passionate, and intelligent person, who deeply cares about her students and all their unique ways of being (of which there are certainly many in a special ed preschool!). Her classroom and schedule are well-designed, full of all the things young children enjoy and all the activities that strengthen and challenge their developing skills. She even told me that based on my description of Rondel she would ask the OT to do a sensory consult for him in class and potentially give him access to occupational therapy for his sensory difficulties and their emotional sequelae. My concerns do not rest with her, but with the whole philosophy of standardized, forced education in general.

During our IEP meeting, the evaluators kept mentioning that this or that skill would be “necessary for kindergarten next year.” To succeed in kindergarten, Rondel would have to learn to sit and pay attention, to be quiet and listen for the majority of the time, to participate in group activities instead of sitting on the edges doing his own thing, to hold a pencil or crayon with enough finesse to write letters and numbers, to respond to directions, and to speak intelligibly. And critically, he would need to learn all of those things by August. To succeed in life, it will be useful and courteous to know how to sit quietly and pay attention to other people; it will be beneficial for forming friendships to be able to engage in group activities and respond appropriately to social cues; it will be helpful to be able to write and draw, but not necessary in an increasingly technical world; and it will be of great importance to speak so that others can understand, particularly for a child who loves to talk as much as he does! But there wouldn’t be any deadline on his acquisition of those skills. Without the impending shadow of kindergarten hanging over him, there would be no rush for him to develop those abilities in his own way and at his own pace – with the exception of his speech.

And it is because of the integrated speech therapy that I am considering preschool as a viable option for Rondel at this point, despite the negative backstory I have for public schools, and despite my plan to homeschool. No matter where the rest of his life takes him or what learning and education look like for him, he will be able to do better, with less frustration and fewer tears, if he can communicate his needs and ideas with the people around him. I want to give him this opportunity now to learn the skills he will need to do that, while he can still do “school” for only 7.5 hours a weeks instead of being expected to fit his life around an all-day, every-day schedule of external demands and schedules. If he grows in his other areas of weakness along the way (especially in social and sensory areas) – so much the better! One fewer hurdle to overcome later!

And if it triggers his sensory issues to the point where he has increased anxiety and meltdowns, we can pull him out. Trying the system out, in an attempt to help Rondel, does not mean we are tied to it forever – or for any arbitrary length of time, honestly. It is all about what works best for him, at this moment, in this context. If to him it feels like a “jail”, if all he wants to do is run away and scream, if it feels like his heart is being crushed – well, unlike my parents and my husband, he won’t have to stay in that environment for years while it molds his character and personality. For us, it can be just another tool in our toolbox.

Posted in information, Uncategorized

preschool special needs screening

On Wednesday, Rondel had a special needs screening with our public school district. Because I wasn’t able to find anything about what to expect before we went, I thought it might be useful for someone if I wrote up a description of the screening, along with some context as to how it fits in to the whole process of qualifying for special education services.

Important qualifiers: this information is specific to the Mesa Public School District (although from what I can tell it is fairly similar across all Arizona districts), and pertains specifically to the preschool/early education screening, without any prior early intervention services.

The Overall Process

Requesting an Evaluation

The first step in accessing special education services is to call the district and request an evaluation for your child. We did this after the incident at church that resulted in Rondel joining the special needs ministry there, as the director of that ministry recommended it as both free and most likely faster than a developmental pediatrician. When you call, you’ll need to provide your address and contact information as well as your child’s name, and they’ll let you know the time, date, and location of the next screening. (By law, this must be within 45 days of your request. Our district does screenings weekly but there can be a lot of demand, so your wait time may be short or you might end up waiting a month or more like we did.)

Screening

The district uses the screening process to limit the number of children receiving in-depth, individual evaluations, for obvious reasons of time and expense. So the screening is designed to determine which kids qualify for that additional evaluation (which is the next step towards receiving services). You’ll receive a brief questionnaire in the mail ahead of time, and it is worth your time to fill it out as completely as possible to ensure that all of your concerns are addressed. The special ed teachers carrying out the screening will read it thoroughly and bring up aspects of your input during the screening.

Evaluation

If your child is determined to qualify for an evaluation (there are several different criteria which I’ll go into later), you will schedule it at the screening. Unfortunately, there will be a bit of a lag time here – Rondel’s evaluation is set for almost two full months after his screening – so it is beneficial to start this whole process as early as possible.

IEPs/504s/etc

This is the part of the process we haven’t reached yet 🙂 Your child’s needs and strengths will be considered in great detail at the evaluation, and if those needs are believed to require additional assistance in the classroom or special services outside the classroom (like occupational therapy or speech therapy), a team of people will work with you to get those services in place. That can be done through the structure of an IEP (individualized education program) or a 504 (federal disability law). This is where you’ll get into the minutia of how to best capitalize on your child’s strengths, accommodate his weaknesses, and teach him the skills he needs most. But like I said, I don’t have personal experience here yet!

A Typical Preschool Special Needs Screening

The Criteria

At the screening, your child will be evaluated in six different developmental areas:

  1. Sensory Skills (hearing and vision)
  2. Cognitive Skills (thinking, concepts, reasoning)
  3. Motor Skills (fine and gross)
  4. Speech and Language Skills (articulation, speech patterns, understanding)
  5. Psychosocial Skills (social/play skills)
  6. Adaptive Skills (eating, dressing, toileting)

To qualify for additional evaluation, a child must score below the cutoff in cognitive skills or in any two of the other skills areas.

Sensory Skills

The first portion of the evaluation is a brief hearing and vision test, to make sure that no physical problems are interfering with the rest of the evaluation. For the vision test, the Welch Allyn spot machine is used; this machine can detect a number of visual abnormalities and if any are flagged, the district will refer your child for a full eye exam. Rondel failed the vision test because the machine detected his anisocoria (that is, one of his pupils is larger than the other; this is sometimes associated with disease but is often just a variation of normal), so a failure here doesn’t necessarily mean something is severely wrong. It’s more of an alert than anything else.

For the hearing test, a earbud-type headphone probe is inserted into each ear, one at a time, and a computer sends sound waves out and records the child’s response. I’m not 100% sure how it works as I was more focused on keeping Rondel from pulling the earbud out before the test was complete. The audiologists running this test were, at least in our case, very understanding of squirmy, sensitive, preschoolers and even said it would be ok to skip the second ear after the first one had passed; however, since he has speech/articulation problems, I had them test both ears. And they both passed – so that was a relief, at least!

I don’t think this kind of test would pick up something like central auditory processing disorder; it is, as far as I could tell, looking purely at the physical mechanisms of hearing. So if that is a concern for your child, you should be aware of that, and potentially address it at the subsequent evaluation or at a private audiologist. Any medical forms like the results of an audiology or eye exam should be brought to the evaluation and will be considered there along with the district’s own observations!

All The Other Skills

After vision and hearing tests are complete, you and your child will meet with a special ed teacher who is going to ask your child some questions and give him some tasks to do with manipulatives and pictures. The teacher will also ask you questions about his self-care and social abilities. There were sorting tasks, stacking tasks, instructions with manipulatives to test understanding of prepositions (e.g., “can you move the bear out of the circle?”), fine motor tasks like drawing and folding, gross motor tasks like walking on a line and hopping on one foot, timed “I Spy” kind of tasks looking for items within a picture, and more. For each task or question, the teacher scores 2, 1, or 0 for a great response, partial response, or inadequate response. The questions and tasks span a wide variety of skills and activities, so you don’t need to worry that your child won’t qualify because they have one really strong area, or that they will look worse than they are because of one really weak area. It seemed rather balanced, especially for simply being a short preliminary screening.

If your child’s speech and understanding seems off, the teacher may call a speech pathologist over to assist with the evaluation, to ensure that articulation difficulties don’t lead to an incorrect assessment of your child’s skills.

Behavioral struggles can, however, lead to lower scores than your child is actually capable of, because there’s no way for the evaluator to know if your child can complete the task and is just choosing not to, or if they are actually unable to complete it. On the other hand, if your child’s behavioral struggles are interfering with following instructions and even carrying out fun activities like some of the manipulative tasks, then they probably need special services anyway and ought to be qualifying for further evaluation! An inability to sit still for more than 2 minutes at a time, or to be quiet when others are talking, or to express frustration in non-violent ways, will definitely make education more difficult for your child, and that needs to be addressed and accommodated.

Summary

While they say to give yourself at least 90 minutes for the screening, it only took us about an hour. They were moving fairly quickly and we were one of the first people in, which probably helped. I’d say the whole thing felt kind of like taking an IQ test adapted for preschoolers… if I had to describe it in a way that my preschooler could understand, I’d tell him that he was going to get to answer questions and show a teacher how smart and capable he was at doing different kind of things like building and sorting and jumping. I’d also tell him that it would be a somewhat noisy, stimulating environment with a lot of other people around, and that he would be expected to control his body and his words as if he were in a library, so that he could be prepared for that.

What I’d tell you, the parent considering taking their child for a screening, is not to be anxious. The evaluators are therapists, special ed teachers, and speech pathologists; they don’t have to worry about the bottom line of the budget, and they genuinely want to see the best possible outcome for your child. The sincerity, compassion, and helpfulness of everyone I encountered blew me away. Even if you are unsure of the educational path you’ll be taking with your child, it’s worth the time to get them evaluated so that you, the parent, have a name for your child’s struggles and recommendations for how to work with those struggles. It can help you adjust your expectations of your child to a more realistic standard, and give you the perspective you need to approach them from a respectful, relational direction instead of from a paradigm of discipline and punishment.

So if you have any concerns about your child’s development, especially if someone outside your family can corroborate those concerns, don’t hesitate to call your school district and request an evaluation! The earlier you know what’s going on, the earlier you can structure your child’s environment in the most helpful way possible for their development. I hope this gave you a more complete picture of what to expect at the very beginning of the special education process!