This past school year has been frustrating, scary, wonderful, exciting and challenging. It has been definitely a roller coaster ride. There have been so many extreme ups and downs without a lot of middle ground. Every time I had been asked how school was going for the kids, I usually replied that it was “Well, ok with some good days and bad days.” Which is typical I guess. But I really would have preferred mostly great days!
I still can’t believe we only have a few more days before school is over. My husband and I are stunned how quickly the school year has passed. I mean we are about to have a sixth grader and a first grader! Both of these grades are going to be major transitions for them. First grade is much harder and more curriculum focused than kindergarten. And sixth grade…ugh. We are on the cusp of teenagedom. And as we talked about in the last post…middle school is scary. We are approaching it from a different situation. My son goes to a K-8 school. So he is moving up from elementary, but will be in the same building he has always been in. There are advantages to this school model. He will be transitioning into a whole new situation (new teachers and different, more demanding classes), but will still be with people he knows and who know him. As for my soon-to-be first grader, she will be going to a new school and that will be a whole new ballgame. It will be larger and a new, unfamiliar routine.
Wrapping up the school year is always what I dread the most. Because it is IEP review time! Nothing like stress to start your summer off right. Since both of my kids have IEPs, we double our pleasure with this yearly routine. IEP stands for Individual Education Plan/Program. An IEP is a written legal document that’s developed for each public school child who is eligible for specialized educational services. In order to qualify for one, your child is assessed by a multidisciplinary team to determine if they have a disability and if they require special education or related services to benefit their general education program. Whew, what a long definition (from internet) but I think it fits. In my opinion, it would be nice if every kid had some type of educational plan made up for them. It would highlight strengths, goals and what needs work.
There is quite a difference between by son’s and my daughter’s IEPs and school experiences. In my daughter’s case, it is a dance. A huge one! Her IEP includes a team of about ten people (Gen Ed teacher, Special Ed/Learning Center teacher, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, Speech teacher, a district representative, Vice Principal, School Psychologist, and finally my husband and myself!). My son’s team is usually 3-4 people tops (his teacher, myself, my husband, Learning Center teacher). My daughter’s review is tense, stressful, hard, highly emotional and very opinionated. My son’s is easy and slightly tense at times but overall highly positive. My daughter’s IEP took two days and about four hours to complete. My son’s took about 45 minutes.
Why the difference? Well, my daughter’s disability is different from my son’s. Hers is more profound and she does have more needs than he does. We also feel that the school does not see them the same way. My son is viewed as intelligent and capable. The view of my daughter is vastly different. Because of her needs and struggling communication skills, the focus tends to shift towards the negative. Her struggles always take the spotlight. Yes, they have to be discussed and reviewed. But it is vital to talk about progress and growth (which she has had this year). Only then can you set goals for the next year to help her reach her full potential.
As with all IEPs, the most stressful part is left until the end…placement! As I mentioned earlier, this is all a dance. With my son…not so much. There is no question about where he will be next year or the years after that. He is fully included, accepted, and his placement is never questioned. He has help along the way but there is never a doubt that he will succeed. But his disability is easier to manage. It is hard for him (no doubt) but staff/teachers are there and willing to help. My daughter, on the other hand, has harder road to travel down. People are not so willing to jump right in there and make things successful. And placement for her will always be in question. And that is where the dance comes in.
The dance is tricky and complicated. You can’t just suddenly bust a move or break into a spontaneous slam dance (homage to my flying mom pants partner). You can’t be demanding, hostile, angry or aggressive. That gets you nowhere. This has to be more like a classical ballet or a waltz. Planning, strategy, and subtleties are the keys. You have to think it through, choose your words carefully, and be prepared. That way you can ask for things to be in place and usually get what your child needs. You do have to ease your way in because there are a lot of personalities and emotions to deal with. But if the whole team is working together (which is the ultimate goal), then you can have a successful outcome.
When we went into this whole IEP experience with my daughter, my husband and I felt like we were really prepared. We had been to classes, seminars, workshops, etc. We are highly involved in support groups, school groups, and the PTA. My husband is even a board member for the Special Ed PTA. So we thought, we got this. After all, we had already been through one IEP before with our son. His was a cake walk, so clear and simple. It went great. Even my daughter’s kindergarten IEP went fairly well. The placement part was super scary and hard. But everyone was in agreement, goals set, and supports requested. She was accepted and fully included in gen ed. But even then we danced.
This year’s IEP for my incoming first grader was way different. Since first grade really is the start of their true academic school life, we knew this IEP was going to be quite different from the last one. We had to hash out all of the goals and specifics before we would even come close to placement discussion. It was heated, emotional, and draining. We left part 1 of her IEP uncertain of how the team was feeling. No one would state their opinions and feelings clearly and concisely. When we got home, my husband and I felt like we needed a decoder book just to figure out what some of the team members was actually saying. But we kept a positive outlook and geared up for part 2 (which we had to wait a whole week for…painful to say the least).
IEP, part 2 begins. Everyone was refreshed, caffeinated, and ready for action. After finishing up all of her goals, supports and objectives, we got to the dreaded part of the whole thing, her placement. It was time for discussion and voting for either full inclusion (like she had this year) or a self-contained classroom. Everyone had two minutes to speak their piece and then cast their vote. The voting went as I had expected. It was almost split down the middle. The last person to vote and talk was the district’s special ed representative. And I would say his statements changed the direction of her placement.
The ones who voted for self-contained class felt that with her limited verbal communication skills and the smaller, quieter setting, a self-contained class was the answer. Their feeling was that she needed that academically but not socially. And that she wouldn’t progress in general ed setting. You see, meticulous notes were taken about my daughter’s progress this whole school year by her teacher. And these notes were referred to often during the meeting. What was interesting was that all of their documentation reflected progress, major progress. She had lots of struggles through the year (most kindergarteners do struggle). But she had some great, great progress (one of those has been her verbal skills). Yes, she is talking way more than ever after being around her classmates.
And the school district’s special ed representative recognized my daughter’s growth. He totally surprised us when he said that there wasn’t any hard evidence out there that showed that a person with a disability can only succeed (academically) in a self-contained classroom. A person with a disability (with the proper supports in place) can be successful in a general ed classroom. That is the key. The proper supports have to be in place. And based on all of the information at the meeting, there was proof that she has been successful.
In regards to fully including my daughter in school, I have been asked lots of questions about it. “It’s hard so why do it?” But the most surprising question I was recently asked was, “Who are you really doing this for?” At the time, it also took me by surprise. It’s like when someone asks you this out-of-the blue question you aren’t prepared for. At the time, I scrambled around and said “for my daughter of course.” But now I would answer that question very differently. So who are we doing this for? We are doing for everyone (my daughter, us, her school and her community). Everyone gains from this experience. My daughter learns how to live in and be a part of a community. Her classmates learn about differences in people, tolerance and kindness. And we definitely need more of that in this world. It is a win, win in my book!
Look, I am all for self-contained classrooms, too. There is definitely a need out there for them. And who knows what is going to happen down the road with my daughter. My beef about it is that most people think everyone with a disability belongs in there. It is not a “one size fits all” situation. Everyone (with and without disabilities) is a unique individual and needs to be treated that way. It has to be what works best for that person. If they need a quieter setting to be successful, then so be it. But if they don’t, then give them a chance to be included and succeed.
Now my daughter will have that chance. She will be a fully included first grader next school year. It is exciting and frightening all at the same time. With all of her supports in place, I know she will be successful. It will be hard but we have to give it a try. And as for my soon-to-be sixth grader…he will be equally successful. It will be a definite challenge dealing with a middle schooler. Are we up for it? I hope so.