“Luck is the residue of design.”
September marks the end of summer and the beginning of many a new school year in districts across the country. A new teacher can make or break the school year for a special needs child. For our children, teachers are everything. They can encourage or inspire, on the one hand, or they can give off a distinctively negative vibe—often unconsciously communicated to other students in the room—if they resent the additional work that having a special needs child in the classroom warrants. Count your blessings if you managed to design, by way of written request the year before, the teacher best suited in temperament, work habits and energy for your elementary school child with special needs. You’re one step ahead of the game.
But what do you do if your child’s elementary school teacher is not a good match?
First of all, let me say that the great majority of teachers who helped my son John navigate the school year were dedicated, kind professionals who had a sincere interest in helping needy kids. And even the teachers who could not contain their frustration with John were often (ironically) the most competent educators–lacking only the temperament to handle a student with multiple behavioral issues and accompanying learning disabilities. But for my kid, a teacher who lacked the temperament to handle him basically lacked everything because the two couldn’t move forward together.
John, whose ADHD diagnosis was one of his multiple qualifying conditions for an IEP, had mixed experiences with general education teachers over the years, but one of the worst assignments occurred in elementary school. What happened that year set the stage for many years to follow. Does that sound too dramatic? His experience with this teacher was so bad that we removed him from the public school district and placed him in a private school. That set the stage for everything that came later.
Don’t ignore a nagging feeling that something isn’t right in your child’s classroom—investigate the situation. If you let a mild situation escalate, you can soon have true damage on your hands. We learned that subtle destruction can become major destruction, especially in regard to your child’s future ability to make friends. If the teacher sends out angry, resentful vibes toward your child—my son was frequently sent out of the classroom to sit on the steps—then other children will pick up on those vibes. In our case, the teacher’s vibes screamed “stay away from John.”
I can’t give anyone specific advice about how to handle a bad teacher/student pairing because I don’t know the specific child or the specific teacher. Plus, I am just a parent. I’m not a therapist, nor am I an educator. I can only tell you what techniques I used to try and help improve a bad situation for my son John. Within the first month or so of a difficult classroom placement, I requested a meeting with the teacher to help dissipate any resentment that might be brewing. It’s also a good idea to request that the principal be present as well. (Your IEP meeting requests should always be in writing.)
I learned how to make two key points with the teacher in question at an IEP meeting to discuss appropriate placement. These were: 1) He’s not doing anything to you, and 2) We need to know you are committed to having him in your classroom.
First, and I can’t stress this enough, I had to teach myself that my son’s behaviors were not something he was doing to me, to the teacher—to anyone. It’s so easy to think that the ADHD child is just a willful handful of aberrant behavior set out to make a parent’s (or teacher’s) life more difficult. It’s so easy—and so very, very destructive—to fall into that line of thinking with a particularly challenging ADHD child. They’re not doing anything to anyone. ADHD is a medical condition, not unlike some other electro-chemical brain imbalance, like Tourette Syndrome or epilepsy. It started to dawn on me that if I had to teach myself that John wasn’t doing anything to me, then what must his teacher be thinking? Wouldn’t the teacher be even more inclined to see the ADHD child as just a willful handful of aberrant behavior (i.e. doing something to her)?
I learned to say things like “Please understand, this is just the way John is. He isn’t doing this to you. You’ve got to really understand that. These behaviors are part of his condition. He works very hard to try to control them all day long and sometimes he fails.” Then, if my statements were met with blank stares, or worse, barely concealed eye rolling, I might have added, “I know you would never say to a child in a wheelchair, ‘Oh, just stop it already. You could walk if you wanted to.’ You wouldn’t say that because to do so would be cruel. AND, you wouldn’t say to an epileptic child: ‘Stop that seizure right this instant’ for the same reason. So why, given that ADHD is a medically-based, brain-chemical imbalance, would you convey anger to my son? Redirection will work better for John, or allowing him an occupation therapy break—those sorts of things are always better choices than telling him to ‘stop it’ or to get angry or to communicate your frustration by sending him out of the room. Your anger will never work. But demonstrating your understanding will work better than you think. Please give it a try.”
This is also a good time to let the teachers know that you know the behaviors can be unnerving to them and to the other students. My son pushed many a button in me, and he still does. After years of being defensive about John’s condition, I finally took the approach of being open and honest. By saying “We know he’s a handful” or “Don’t you just wish you could find his ‘off’ switch?” you can inject some humor into the situation. I often added the statement, “Believe me, no one knows better than I do the kind of energy and patience it takes to raise and educate John.”
Second, after I found some common ground with the teacher and felt like the tension in the meeting had relaxed a little, I would ask the teacher for an honest commitment. I might have said something like: “Given enough help and support for both you and John, can we make this year work? I’m committed to being here when I can to help. I am committed to following up at home with homework help. But there is one thing I need to know from you: Are you 100% committed to having John in your classroom? It’s so important to us—and it’s important to John, who is not stupid and can sense these things—to know that you welcome him as part of your classroom like any other student. Because if you are NOT committed to this arrangement, now is the time for you to say so, and we’ll seek another placement.”
While this puts the teacher on the spot, it also gives the teacher an out. Plus, you have just committed to seeing this year through; why not ask the teacher to do the same? If you have a teacher who absolutely hates your child and if you don’t recognize the signs and act on them—and this is not too far-fetched in my experience—then you set the stage for a difficult, difficult year. Listen very closely to the teacher’s answer—this will determine whether or not you take steps to remove your child from a potentially destructive situation.
Remember, the world is made up of all kinds of different people. No two people are alike. We all make up this thing called “the public.” Your child is the public that you are paying the school system to educate (through your tax dollars). Your child has a right to a free and appropriate public education. I’m not above reminding the teacher that “my son is the public, and this is a public school. Are you in?”
IEP meetings can be stressful unto themselves. However, there is a difference between stress where everyone is working together for the good of the student and broken stress where the team is on one side and the parents and parent advocate are on the other side separated both mentally and physically by the table. This type of meeting is never fun!
The typical root cause of broken meetings has to do with the way the team interacts and how many skeletons have been collected in the closet. These skeletons represent unresolved issues that have not been dealt with openly and honestly. The IEP team is much like a marriage where each member must have shared trust and respect along with good open and honest communication.
Note: The names have been changed and the story altered to share a point.
Scenario 2: The Ambush IEP Change
What is an Ambush IEP Change? An Ambush IEP Change is when one member of the IEP team suggests a radical change in placement, programming, accommodations, services, etc., for the special needs child in the first 5 minutes of the IEP meeting. Ambush IEP Changes are used by school district personnel or by parents and their advocates to catch other team members off guard and to push through whatever individual agenda is behind the suggested change. We use the word ambush to describe a situation where changes have not been even casually discussed prior to the IEP meeting and where the party hearing the suggested change for the first time is uncomfortable about the surprise request, or maybe even mad.
Alice and her husband Bob attend an IEP meeting for their 13-year-old daughter Jean. Alice had requested that Jean be moved to an alternative middle school program. The new program called for Jean to take one intensive class at a time and complete 90% of her work at home rather than attend school in a campus setting with five classes per day. The IEP meeting took place at the alternative program classroom, and Alice and Bob had looked forward to meeting the new IEP team members.
In the first five minutes of the meeting, the district representative said, “We need to remove the Special Factors/Accommodations pages that are attached to your daughter’s IEP. These factors and accommodations don’t apply to a home-school setting, OK? Can we agree on that?”
Shocked and surprised, Alice and Bob were not sure how to respond. The new district representative, someone they had just met, was requesting the elimination of 2 pages of hard-won special factors and accommodations for Jean.
What Alice is feeling:
Are you serious? I’m just supposed to agree to throw out Jean’s Special Factors/Accommodations pages because of a new placement? These things work for Jean, and she still attends a classroom. And yet, wait a minute, let me think for a second . . . she does complete the bulk of her work at home now, and maybe some of the accommodations don’t apply anymore. I’m just not sure. Should I go over each and every accommodation and special factor now? We have so much else to talk about at this meeting. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable. Why is the district doing this? And what if Jean needs to return to the middle school she just left? I have no guarantees of anything here. At least I can request that the pages be re-inserted if Jean needs to return to the campus. I don’t know what else to do and I don’t appreciate this big surprise.
What the district representative is feeling:
I just came out of a meeting about Jean with other district personnel and the district’s attorney. They are uncomfortable with the accommodations as written in Jean’s IEP because unless the home school program teacher implements the specific approaches, the district has some legal exposure. The home school program teacher has his own methods of reaching and helping kids like Jean. Plus, we really do believe the Special Factors/Accommodations pages are no longer valid because of Jean’s alternative placement. Jean isn’t in a classroom five days per week. She now attends a class only once per week and only for a short time. I need to get the parents to see the district’s point of view.
Alice and Bob agree that their daughter is in a new setting, but they are concerned about the wholesale elimination of accommodations that have helped Jean. How could this possibly benefit Jean? They make a request: If Jean needs to return to her previous campus setting, the Special Factors/Accommodations pages must then be re-inserted into Jean’s IEP. The district representative writes their request into the IEP notes. Alice and Bob are relieved they can move forward, but they have a lingering feeling of discomfort about how the meeting has progressed so far. They can’t help but wonder: Will they get ambushed again? Plus they know that their request to have the special factors and accommodations re-inserted in the IEP at a later date, if needed, is still open to negotiation. IEPs are fluid documents for both the parents and the schools.
First of all, Alice and Bob should ask the district representative a direct question: “How will this help my child learn?” or “What is the benefit to Jean’s education to eliminate her Special Factors/Accommodations pages?” Listen carefully to the response (or in some cases, lack of a reasonable response). The next day, Alice needs to write a letter to thank the IEP team for their time and include a recap of issues discussed/decisions made in the meeting. A short description of the reasons given for this radical IEP change and a description of any benefit (or no benefit) to the child documents the district’s reasoning for the change.
Second, a parent could move that the IEP team “table” (or put off the discussion until the next meeting) the suggestion to eliminate the Special Factors/Accommodations pages. If a parent does this, she needs to be clear that she felt she had no other choice. A parent might say something like: “I’m uncomfortable with this suggestion. This proposed radical change to Jean’s IEP was not even mentioned to me before the meeting, and had I been given time to prepare, I might have been able to discuss this with you now. I was not given time to prepare. I need to research this proposed change, so I move that we table this discussion until the next IEP meeting. Can we please move on?” Ask that the IEP notes reflect the team’s decision to table the discussion for the next meeting. Then do your homework and be prepared for the next meeting.
Let’s imagine that most of Jean’s IEP is finished, but Alice and Bob are still uncomfortable. They do not have to sign the IEP at that exact hour. Parents are well within their rights to take photocopies of the original IEP pages home and spend a few days going over them. A parent could say, “We’ve discussed so much here today. Please give me a photocopy to take home. I’ll go over it closely by myself. I need this extra time to be sure the program is appropriate for my child.” Plus, a parent can agree to some parts of an IEP while still negotiating on other parts.
Can this IEP be Saved?
Note: The names have been changed and the story altered to make a point.
Mrs. Jones, parent, and teachers had been communicating with a daily log. Mrs. Jones requested an addendum meeting in writing because she noticed that her son, Anthony, was presenting with some unacceptable behaviors at school.
The case manager set a meeting at the later part of the thirty-day time line. Mrs. Jones felt that a plan needed to be developed before the behavior escalated further. She had gotten in touch with the case manager and voiced her concerns about waiting more than three weeks before putting a plan in place. The case manager reported that was when she could best fit the meeting into all of the providers schedules. Mrs. Jones then contacted the speech and language provider and requested to speak with her. The speech and language provider shared that she would prefer to wait for the meeting and discus Anthony with the team.
Unfortunately, to Mrs. Jones’ dismay the daily log showed that behaviors were escalating and she felt that Anthony was no longer safe in the school environment. So she decided to keep Anthony home and wait for the meeting and a plan to be developed.
What Mrs. Jones is feeling:
My concerns aren’t being heard. The case manager doesn’t seem to think that Anthony’s behaviors are alarming. Anthony is running out of the classroom and into the playground. He is crying when I pick him up and saying that he doesn’t want to go to school. I’m not sure what is happening. I don’t think the case manager likes Anthony!
What the case manager is feeling:
I can’t believe Anthony’s behaviors are escalating so quickly. I’ve put together the entire team for a meeting and we will come up with a plan. I’ll talk to each provider and have them observe Anthony. I’ll also speak with the school’s psychologist and have her observe Anthony. However, Anthony is not in school and I haven’t been able to put anything into place.
Day of the meeting:
Anthony’s fleeing behaviors are discussed along with attendance. The case manager shares that attendance seems to be the biggest issue. Mrs. Jones wants to know what the plan is to get Anthony back into school and how the team will ensure his safety. The team agrees on an evaluation for a one on one instructional assistance. Occupational therapist presents a sensory diet. Case manager presents a behavior support plan.
The evaluation plan has a sixty day time line. Anthony’s behaviors grow increasingly more aggressive. Mrs. Jones once again pulls Anthony from school as she waits for the sixty day time line to expire and the team to meet again. The team is frustrated because Anthony isn’t in attendance and they are having a difficult time completing the evaluation without Anthony in school.
Mrs. Jones is no longer confident that the team can meet Anthony’s educational needs. Can this IEP be saved?