Saturday, February 16, 2013

How I love thee, IEP!

I’m sure by now, parents and teachers reading this are already wondering where on earth I’m going with this. No one loves IEPs. At best, they’re useful tools, and at worst, they’re paper-heavy nonsense that does neither the child nor the teacher any good. But hear me out...

For those who aren’t inside the world of Special Ed, an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is a legal document that describes what modifications to the curriculum or accommodations in teaching methods are required by a child with special education needs.  It can include anything from sitting at the front of the class to being provided with notes to highlight, from reducing the amount of work that is required at a child’s given grade level to completely changing the grade level of expectations that their working on, to adding things that aren’t in the curriculum at all, like learning to tie their own shoes or communicate by selecting a picture of something they want.  Who writes them and what is included is supposed to be fairly standard, but can in reality vary wildly, and can sometimes put teachers, parents and students at odds with each other over how it is being followed on a daily basis.

For instance, a mainstream student in Grade 5 or 6 that has been identified as having a learning disability specific to writing and spelling may have on their IEP that they are to have access to technology for written tasks. Sounds good, right? As a parent, if you know your child has all the content knowledge in the world but has trouble with physical handwriting or spelling, you want to be damn sure they have a computer in front of them for everything from taking science notes to writing essays to answering short-answer questions in their math work. And rightly so. As a teacher, if you have 4-5 kids with that same accommodation (don’t laugh, it happens often!), and only 2 ancient computers in your room, only 1 of which works at any given time, and no laptops, and the support teacher only sees your kids for one period a day, how on earth are you supposed to implement that accommodation fairly at all the times the students need it. Also, FYI, you are legally required to provide that for the child, if it’s on their IEP. Impasse, right? Right.  Until technology is more widely available to all students, or until IEPs automatically come with all the materials needed to make the accommodations possible, there will always be ongoing battles between parents and school boards about how students with IEP’s are supported. An between parents and teachers, because let’s face it, not all accommodations are about technology, and many things go undone in support of IEPs, either because the teacher doesn’t know they’re on there or they’re too busy/lazy to do them every day.  Teachers are not saints, and some aren’t even that good of teachers!

However, most parents and teachers recognize that IEPs are the first step in giving a kid with special needs the tools they need to be successful, and work hard together to try and ensure that the IEP is being implemented. Still, that doesn’t make them loveable things... So here’s why I love IEPs – this month, anyway!

In Room 10, all my kiddo’s are on alternative expectation IEPs – while some of them include academic skills like reading, writing and math, they are mostly composed of functional communication goals, behaviour goals and social or life skills. They’re specific – I meet with each student’s parent at the beginning of each year to take a look at last year’s IEP, talk about what has changed or hasn’t, and what kind of things we would collectively like to work on for the coming year. It’s a luxury – teachers in classes where kids are on “grade level” IEPs really don’t have the flexibility that I do – they are basically deciding what within their specific curriculum to focus on, and it doesn’t make for the same level of collaboration and input as we get in Room 10. But my kiddos are specific, every last thing is discussed and detailed, from how they are expressing themselves and their wants and needs to what they long-range goal of their programming is. Even then, they’re still only snapshots of what a kid is learning – measurable pieces of a much larger picture of what goes on all day every day.

Report cards and IEPs went home a few weeks ago, which means the inevitable scramble of updating the IEPs, rifling through daily notes to collect information and reporting on how they’re doing on the goals we set. Last year, I had to write all the IEPs from scratch – revamp, revise and re-evaluate another teacher’s idea of what the kids could and could not do (most of which I didn’t agree with!) and take a guess as to where we were going to be headed for the year.  This year, they were my own, and I made an awesome, delicious discovery – our program is WORKING!

Sunshine, who last year, was working on matching and identifying her classmates’ names, is now working on building sentences and adding sight words to her ever-growing vocabulary.  I did a blog about her reading program here. She can receptively identify all her numbers from 1-5, and is using almost 10 3-word expressions spontaneously.

Little Guy had NO academic programming when he arrived last year.  His only goals were to sit for eating or working for up to 2 minutes at a time, and to reduce behaviours of running away and throwing things. This year, running and throwing aren’t even ON his IEP anymore, he sits for 15 minutes at a time for both snack and work activities, and is participating in circle by using the iPad to tell us the weather in the morning.  He can match, sort and do puzzles like a champ.

Mouse is a tricky one... Of all my kiddos, she’s the most “in her own world”, so we’ve had a really hard time getting her to show us what she can do, or engaging her in anything outside of her own stims and fidgets. In an academic sense, it’s hard to track a lot of growth, but because of her IEP, I’m able to realize things like the fact that she now looks up and waves when I call her name during morning circle, and will get up without prompting to help place calendar pieces. She can match by shape and colour, and is learning to use the iPad to request for her snack. And she’s learned to skate!  The first time we took her last year, we had to hold her up from behind and skate her around, and now she goes like gangbusters with just someone to hold her hands – maybe not a school skill in the traditional sense, but a huge accomplishment nonetheless!

Giggles was the inspiration for this post, to be honest, because it was as I wrote her IEP that I realized just how the IEP allowed me to think about the growth she’s had. Now, I’m not going to take credit for it – she’s only with us 2 days a week, and I know her IBI team have been working hard the rest of the week, because we’ve been talking and working together over the past two years.  She’s also grown up a lot! When I first met her, she spent a good part of the day flopped on the floor, giggling. She ran away at every opportunity, could not been within arm’s reach of other children, and would pinch, grab, pull hair and poke at people’s eyes. This is not the same child!  She can read familiar words, name almost anything you show her, and knows her numbers up to 10. She sings along with all our songs, follows multi-step instructions, and is our STAR when we’re out in the community – we never have to worry about her running away or behaving inappropriately.  When I wrote her IEP for this term, I actually took behaviour completely off of it, and put in a new strand for social skills, instead. There’s not enough behaviour to even make it worthwhile to track anymore! *happy dance* This week, when she came in, she finished her morning routine and then headed toward the carpet and reached for Sunshine as though to pinch her (they have a love-hate relationship!).  I interrupted her by saying “Do you want to say good morning to Sunshine?”, to which she responded by saying “Good morning Sunshine! High five?” GAVE her the high five, and then went merrily on to her preferred activity!!! I almost died of happiness!

Anyway, all this to say that without the IEPs, I wouldn’t have the same chance to sit down and actually think about and see in a concrete way how far they’ve each come. To reflect on how much they’ve learned, and to think about how to move them on to bigger and better things. So thank you, IEPs... As much as I hate you every year in September – and every time report cards roll around – your usefulness far outshines your annoyance, and allows me to celebrate the amazing progress that the kiddos have made, even if it is just a snapshot of a much larger picture.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Letting Go... Or, Careful what you wish for

I love all my kiddos.

They are amazing, quirky, smart, funny and affectionate, each in their own ways. 

But let’s be honest – with 5 kids on the “severe” end of the spectrum in one room, things can get really crazy. (* and don’t get me started about how much I hate “severe” as a descriptor, but  as a blanket statement for the similarities in terms of how their individual autism presents, and how they've landed in Room 10, it’s a necessary evil) Everyone has off days, and although they don’t always start off that way, one of them having a really off day can often escalate into triggering others into a bad day, which can set off a roller-coaster of insanity that turns 3pm into heaven on earth. But thankfully, most of the kids are pretty even keel most days, and if we divide and conquer we can usually manage to keep everything chugging along, learning and even laughing as we get through our days together.

Except for Mr. Intense.  My precious boy, I am sad to say, has more bad days than good, and this is not a new pattern.  Truth be told, his worst days now are still light-years better than they were last year (pre-meds) – check in here for a taste of what we were all going through then.  However, even with the meds, even with consistency and amazing levels of support from all kinds of sources, good days for him still are a pleasant surprise. 

Late last school year, after a slew of accident reports and ongoing interventions, we all agreed that the level of support we were able to provide for him in our public school setting wasn't enough, and decided to seek placement for him in a provincial-level classroom – something they call Tre-ADD(Treatment, Research, and Education for Autism and Developmental Disorders).  For those who don’t want to check the link – they’re still classroom-based programs housed in schools, but they are staffed by therapists, a coordinator, and have their own support staff (nurses, OTs, PTs, etc.) They’re (typically) kids whose behaviour is such that they’re not able to be successful in a classroom, and it’s not an endgame – the program is designed to have kids go in for a couple of years and work on behaviour and readiness skills, and then eventually go back to their local schools. It’s the Cadillac of publicly-funded programs, basically.

Anyway, after filling out all the paperwork back in the spring, we heard nothing for months and months, and finally my principal got fed up with negotiating the school board red tape and called the program herself, and back in November, they came for a meeting and observation of Mr. Intense. Of course, the day they came he was a PERFECT angel all day, but with the amount of documentation we had and the amount of help and support his family really needs, they agreed to consider him, and the week before the holiday break, we got the call that he’s been given a placement, and will likely be moving there by the end of this month.  I was thrilled – and not just because I won’t be getting my hair pulled 40+ times a day for the first time in almost 2 years...

I was thrilled for his dad, who is raising him alone here while mom stays at home overseas and supports them, because there were no appropriate schools for Mr. Intense there, and despite the fact that they are both well-educated, they couldn't find jobs here. Dad is drowning with no family or friends for support, and will really benefit for all the extras that the new program provides.

I was thrilled for the other kiddos, because the number of times they've had their hair pulled, been hit, shoved or had their food or materials grabbed out of their hands is just not fair, and the reality of him not being in our room means they will all get more attention, less harried teachers and a quieter, calmer learning environment.

Most of all, though, I was thrilled for Mr. Intense. His is SO smart, and my inability to meet his needs has caused us both endless frustration.  He needs a functional communication system, a way to express himself, and skills to be able to self-regulate so that he can show everyone just how smart he really is every day, not just in rare flashes. And without 1-on-1, and without a team of people who are far more organized, consistent and knowledgeable than my staff and I, we can’t give him that. And so I was thrilled...

As we returned in January, though, the reality of him leaving has begun to set in, and I’d be lying if I didn't admit that my heart is breaking just a little. On our first day back Monday, he spend the day hugging me. All day.  He was so happy to be back that he didn't pull my hair (or anyone else’s) even once, and he would literally circle the room, come running over to wherever I was, hug me, and then go back to what he was doing. Over and over. It didn't last past Monday, but it was so damn endearing that it kept me smiling all day long. By Wednesday, he was back to being upset all day, and when I had to call his dad to come and get him Thursday because he had been in meltdown mode all day, I literally cried.  In front of dad.  By the time dad arrived, Mr. Intense was sitting still in the Quiet Room, head in his hands, with his nearly-broken glasses sitting on my desk and chairs overturned all over the room, and when dad wondered aloud (to both Mr. Intense and I) “What happened?”, I teared up and answered “I don’t know. He’s just so upset, and I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m sorry. I just love him so much... I wish I knew how to make him not upset!” Dad, who is lovely and supportive, reassured me “I know. I’m so appreciative of everything you do for him. I know you love him”, which of course just made me cry harder.

As he headed home with dad and I headed off to meet up with my TA’s and the rest of the kids, I was hit with such a wave of disappointment and sadness. Why did I resort to calling dad? What could I have done differently? How could I send him home when I know my time left with him is so short?

And I know myself well enough to know that that last question is also part of the answer – because even though I know Tre-ADD is what’s best for him, there will always be a part of me that will feel as though I failed him – not just on Thursday, but in general.  There will always be a part of me that wonders if I hadn't pushed to send him to Tre-ADD, if I had just tried harder, or tried something different, or been more patient, that he might have been more successful in Room 10. And I hate that feeling. And I know, as I sit here with tears in my eyes, that when the day comes when he finally does leave us, I won’t be thrilled about it at all.  I’ll be sad. But maybe that’s my saving grace, because if I’m truly sad and not happy, it means that I sent him for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.  And although it won’t erase the feeling of having failed him, it will allow me to take comfort in remembering those hugs and that brilliant smile once it’s gone, and to know that part of being a good teacher to these kiddos is knowing enough to know when to let them go, because somebody out there knows way more than me about how to help him, and maybe my job was to help get him to those folks. I hope...